THE night of Tuesday, September 23, 1513, was another boisterous one for a fleet of four heavily armed Spanish vessels returning from a mission to find Florida. Three of the vessels, under Ponce de Leon, had set off together, but the third ship, which is not named in historical records, was on a separate mission, most likely sent by the son of Christopher Columbus, Diego, to spy on de Leon. After all, The Bahamas were claimed as the exclusive property of Christopher Columbus and Bartholomew, his brother. That doesn’t mean mariners didn’t often sail through The Bahamas enslaving the Lucayan and other peoples and plundering whatever they could. It means that since it was illegal for them to do so, they didn’t log or record or share what happened.
Ever since this has made identifying the Highbourne Cay wreck difficult to pinpoint, since de Leon’s original fleet of three ships all survived. The answer may lie in this contemporary account: “...until the 23rd of September. And the bark from the island of Espaniola that had joined itself with them was lost there, although the people were saved.” There was only one bark from Hispaniola, and that was under Diego Miruelo.
On that stormy night, after being holed up at anchor for 27 days at either Exuma (Curateo, or Lucayan for Outer Far Distant Land), or Little San Salvador (Guateo, Lucayan for Toward the Distant Land), the barquentine under the pilot Diego Miruelo, dragged anchor and ran into shallow water, where it has remained. One of its many cannonades was loaded with powder when found nearly 500 years later, indicating it was ready to signal when in distress. It was never fired, since they were seen by men on de Leon’s fleet, namely: Santa Maria de la Consolacion, San Cristobal, and Santiago. There was evidently ample time for Miruelo’s men to be absorbed into the 300 or so who had been seven months on the De Leon expedition to find Florida (which they did) or a Fountain of Youth (which they didn’t).
A critical way to solve the riddle of what ship it would be to clarify which island the Spaniards refer to. That relies largely on their understanding of Lucayan and how close the author was to the action. It turns out he wasn’t. According to Dr Sam Turner, the “principle source of information for this is the chronicler Antonio de Herrera, whose late 16th-century account of this voyage is based on documents written during the voyage. Herrera recounts that Diego Miruelo’s vessel was lost at Guatao while at anchor, but that all the crew were saved”. In other words, the writer was translating Lucayan words almost identical from one another and about 80 years later, to identify on which island they wrecked.
The intrigue behind these events – and burying knowledge of Miruelo – is significant. He is believed to have discovered Florida before de Leon, when blown off course from a slaving voyage in the Bahamas, and not to have been given credit for it. His Spanish-built ship was sent from either the governor of Hispaniola or Diego Columbus in Cuba, both of whom were locked in power-struggles with de Leon’s overlords. Whether through sabotage (cutting the cable) or not, Miruelo’s ship was eliminated, though it meant de Leon had to welcome Miruelo aboard his ships. So, he ordered them west on the Santiago to look for Bimini while he sailed south, back to Puerto Rico, and eventually the three original ships and men returned there that fall.
Why would the “Highbourne Cay Wreck”, dated to the first quarter of the 1500s, not be connected to Miruelo’s ship? The circumstantial evidence is high; two anchors were splayed 150 yards north of the site, which sits just 750 feet northwest of Highbourne Cay, where ballast stones are still visible in 25 feet of water over an area about 75 feet long. One anchor sat on deck still, and while the heavy weapons and ballast remains, it seems clear that the men on board had the time to remove almost all their personal belongings which are usually detritus on such wrecks; in fact only one gold-inlayed knife was found, and that was probably dropped in the rush to get off the sinking vessel as it was pounded on its starboard side by wave from the deep ocean north of Highbourne, at the north of the Exumas. Another explanation is that for 500 years at 25 feet persons have scavenged.
Then there is the nickname of the wreck: Iberian – a hat-tip to the fact it is Spanish. Both Miruelo’s vessel and the ship found in Exumas in 1965 are nameless, which speaks to the urge to suppress his exploits. Experts who studied the wreck conclude “it is thought to date as early as 1500–1525 AD,” and 1513 is in the centre of that range. For nearly 70 years persons have been taking essential components and evidence from the site. This might seem a good thing, except almost all of it was taken out of The Bahamas, yet never returned. Bahamians will have to go overseas and ask permission to find answers, because the site has been pillaged by foreigners, some of them representing prestigious institutions.
The story is fast-moving and opaque: Nicholas Budsberg, PhD, says: “The site was first relocated in 1965 by skin divers [Americans Jack Robinson, Clint Hinchman, and Robert Wilkie] and was partially salvaged by a team of treasure hunters the following year.” Smith, Keith, and Lakey wrote in 1985 that “the discoverers applied to the Government of The Bahamas for Permission”, and reached out to Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institute, and “a licence was granted”. Excavations began in 1966, with Teddy Tucker and Robert Canton of Bermuda brought in.
According to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, between the late-1960s and mid-1980s the site was all but forgotten and ignored: “…many of the artifacts [wound] up in the United States. Some ….to the Mariners Museum at Newport News, …a few acquired by the Smithsonian.” The only major artifact left behind – a fourth anchor – rests at the marina at Highbourne Cay today, though is not believed to have come from this wreck at all. How are Bahamians to conduct an autopsy when most of the body has been removed?
What underwater cultural heritage did these esteemed archaeologists remove from the seabed of The Bahamas? According to the Nautical Archaeology Digital Library’s 2018 study by Budsberg and Castro, the takings included “a wrought iron harpoon…. over a dozen wrought-iron artillery, breech chambers, and shot … two wrought iron bombardetas … 13 wrought iron versos – two … thought to be verso dobles, a longer type of swivel gun – and 18 compatible breech chambers (one loaded …) were also removed from the site in the 1960s. Iron wedges for locking the breech chambers were also found…”
It is possible that the wreck is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, so its value is inestimable. The artefacts taken, more than the remaining ballast pile and timbers, may allow Bahamians the opportunity to determine what ship it really is. Sitting at the lip between deep water and extensive shallow banks, viscous twice-daily currents create dangers and impediments.
Ponce de Leon sailed back to Spain and fame. Not so Pilot Miruelo, who in 1516 “found what many authors believe to have been Pensacola Bay.” Then he went back to Cuba with Spanish gold bartered from indigenes. Miruelo was later tasked with finding Florida a third time, but due to his “failing to take note in the course, and not remember them, he was unable to show the way to Florida on a second trip, and he went insane”. Was he the Iberian who left his vessel in The Bahamas, which now lays in parts in foreign capitals and the Virginia Capes? Will we re-open this 500-year cold case that speaks to the earliest European voyages to The Bahamas and affix a ship name to our first known shipwreck?