Changing Planet

Colonial Shipwrecks of Colombia: Cartagena de Indias

Puerta del Reloj, Cartagena de Indias
Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

National Geographic Grantee and Texas State University Research Faculty Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann and a top-notch team of archaeologists from Colombia and the United States are leading an expedition to locate and document historic shipwrecks off of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Follow along with Fritz’s updates from the field.

Originally inhabited by numerous pre-Columbian cultures since approximately 4000 BC, based on evidence found in the archaeological sites of Puerto Hormiga and Monsú, numerous tribes inhabited the islands, peninsulas, and the bay of the region when Spanish explorers first noted the area in initial voyages throughout the beginning of the 16th century.

Founded in 1533, the city was given the name of Cartagena de Indias due to the fact that most of the crew hailed from Cartagena, Spain.  The city soon became one of the most important ports in the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean.  With the discovery of gold in the pre-Columbian tombs of the Sinú Culture, the increased wealth of the already prosperous city led not only to a population increase, but also called out to pirates and privateers, such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who each sacked the city in 1568 and 1585.  William Dampier, privateer and writer, described Cartagena as “…a city so well-known that I shall say nothing of it…”

Cannons line the walled fortifications surrounding the historic center of Cartagena de Indias. Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University
Cannons line the walled fortifications surrounding the historic center of Cartagena de Indias.
Credit: Fritz Hanselmann/The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University

Following Drake’s attack the Spanish Crown invested heavily in the city’s defenses and it soon became the most heavily fortified Spanish city in the colonies, which became crucial with the advent of the gold and silver shipments arriving from the mines in Potosí (modern day Peru) through the Pacific via Panamá.  Cartagena was considered one of the finest ports in the world, serving the galleons of the Spanish trade fleets that annually carried the gold and silver through Havana and on to Spain.  In 1741, the vastly outnumbered city withstood a massive two-month long siege by a British force of 186 ships and 23,600 men led by Admiral Edward Vernon.  This would be the last foreign incursion against the city.  With the decline of the Spanish Empire, Cartagena declared independence on November 11, 1811 following that of Bogotá, and, along with the rest of New Granada, won its independence August 7, 1821.

Today, Cartagena functions as an important port in modern maritime trade, a center for national and international tourism, its colonial historic center, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, continues to entrance its visitors with a sense of history and beauty while walking the famed city walls and cobbled streets, a contrast to the modern high rises on the peninsula to the south, and its bay and coast are home to numerous shipwrecks that sank throughout its fabled history.

Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, the Centro de Investigaciones Oceanográficas e Hidrográficas of the Dirección General Marítima, the Agencia Presidencial de Cooperación Internacional de ColombiaLa Tortuga Dive SchoolHalcyon Dive Systems, the Way Family Foundation, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Frederick "Fritz" Hanselmann is Research Faculty, who serves as the Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Diving Program Director with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. He is also the director of The Meadows Center's Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Initiative. Fritz learned how to swim at age three, and has been in love with the water ever since, having been taught to breath hold dive by his grandfather diving for golf balls tied in a sock in the Gulf of Mexico. Having worked on underwater sites from a wide variety of time periods, his research ranges from submerged prehistoric deposits in springs and caves to historic shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, abandoned by Captain Kidd in 1699 off the coast of Hispaniola. Fritz led the first-ever archaeological survey of the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama as the initial phase of the ongoing Río Chagres Maritime Landscape Study. One aspect of this study is the Lost Ships of Henry Morgan Project, the search for the famous privateer's sunken ships. He is one of the Principal Investigators of the Monterrey Shipwreck Project in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the deepest shipwreck excavation ever conducted in North America, in collaboration with three federal agencies, three universities, and three non-profit organizations. Fritz is also the co-director of the Sunken Ships of Colombia project, which focuses on finding, documenting, studying, and managing historic shipwrecks along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Spring Lake Underwater Archaeology Project on the university's campus also falls under his supervision and he assists other projects in Mexico and Texas as part of the Initiative. Fritz also focuses on capacity building and training for archaeologists and heritage managers in less developed countries, as well as the development of marine protected areas and underwater preserves. He is a GUE Cave and Technical Diver, a Nautical Archaeology Society Tutor, a certified scuba instructor, an ambassador for Aquadive Watches, and a fellow of the Explorer’s Club. Fritz regularly gives public lectures and presentations for museums, universities, and other organizations.

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