Colonial Shipwrecks of Colombia: Santa María la Antigua del Darién

1785 Map of the Gulf of Urabá, with location of the abandoned Santa María la Antigua del Darién.

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. 

In the years following the discovery of the so-called “New World”, Spanish explorers and conquistadors sailed the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea in search of habitable areas that were fit for new settlements.  One of the more predominant Spanish explorers, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, spent a number of years leading forays along the coasts of what is now Panama and Colombia, eventually become the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from an Atlantic Crossing in 1513.

With a number of failed attempts to establish settlements on the mainland, or what the Spanish called Tierra Firme, Balboa picked a location on the edge of the Darién jungle in Colombia.  Following a battle with the native population in which the Spanish conquistadors emerged victorious, they named the town Santa María la Antigua del Darién, after the Virgin Mary to whom they had prayed to secure their victory.  Santa María was founded in 1510 and became the first successful Spanish settlement on Tierra Firme, with Balboa as governor of the region.  The town flourished as the capital of the Castilla de Oro region and became the first settlement to have the presence of a Catholic bishopric.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa
Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (Frederick Ober 1908)

Santa María proved to be initially successful, but soon became entwined in the politics of colonial Spain.  Balboa was replaced by Pedrarias Dávila, who brought with him approximately 2,000 more settlers, including soldiers, artists, doctors, and women.  This sudden population influx taxed Santa María’s agricultural resources and led to an eventual situation of famine and epidemic.  At the same time, Dávila sought other options for a city, eventually founding Panama City in 1519.  The famous Spanish chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, remained in charge of Santa María until Dávila ordered its abandonment in 1524.

As a part of this project, we will be surveying areas of the coastline near Bahia de la Gloria in search of evidence of a Spanish port or ships of exploration that may have sunk near the river mouth that leads to what remains of Santa María la Antigua del Darién.  Concurrently, a team of terrestrial archaeologists led by Alberto Sarcina is beginning work to excavate the ruins of the first successful Spanish settlement on Tierra Firme.

Funding and support provided by a National Geographic Society-Waitt Grant, the Universidad del Norte, the Ministerio de Culturathe Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e HistoriaHalcyon Dive Systems, Cabañas Anayansi, Dive and Green Dive Center, the Way Family Foundation, and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
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.