Malcom, Corey (2017) Solving a Sunken Mystery: The Investigation and Identification of a Sixteenth-Century Shipwreck. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

In the summer of 1991, St. Johns Expeditions, a Florida-based marine salvage company, discovered a shipwreck buried behind a shallow reef along the western edge of the Little Bahama Bank. The group contacted archaeologists to ascertain the significance of the discovery, and it was soon determined to be a Spanish ship dating to the 1500’s. The investigation of the shipwreck was entrusted to the author, working for the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society (MFMHS), a not-for-profit research center based in Key West, Florida. Under the agreement, the collection of recovered materials will remain as an intact collection housed in both Key West and The Bahamas.

Between 1992 and 1999, the MFMHS conducted six excavations to examine and document the shipwreck. Approximately 1,500 artifacts were recovered, along with many more olive jar sherds, iron fasteners, and barrel hoop fragments. Careful analysis of the materials found on the shipwreck, along with clues provided by the remains of the ship itself, shows that the sizeable vessel sailed between 1555 and 1575 and had touched at Tierra Firme (Colombia and Panama) before sinking during a return voyage to Spain.

By comparing the archaeological evidence to the historical record, it becomes clear that the St. Johns shipwreck can be none other than the Santa Clara, a 300-ton Carrera de Indias trader owned by the famed Spanish mariner Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. While returning to Spain in October of 1564, it grounded on a reef in the western Bahamas and could not be freed. Its cargo of silver and the people on board were safely removed to an accompanying ship, and the Santa Clara was abandoned.

Santa Clara comes from a time when the Spanish colonial system had largely shifted from the exploration and conquest of the Americas into a new stage of settlement and commercial development. The physical remains of the ship, combined with its history, reveal a material culture in use as the Americas began to be systematically exploited, as well as the sorts of people who sailed with these ships and what they were doing. With the identity and specific circumstances of the shipwreck now known, it can serve as an important touchstone in the understanding of the early Spanish colonial system.

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