'Incalculable' value from Bahamas' 176 wrecks


Tribune Business Editor


A Bahamas-based underwater explorer says the value to this nation's underwater cultural heritage from the 176 extra ship wrecks identified within its licence area is "incalculable" and "cannot be measured in dollars".

David Concannon, Allen Exploration Group’s spokesperson, told Tribune Business via e-mailed reply to this newspaper's questions that the company is currently compiling a "database of ship wrecks" covering the entire Bahamas and intends to apply for permits to salvage some of these sites.

Speaking after Allen Exploration unveiled the findings of its Lost Ships Project, an effort to map all underwater wreck sites within its northern Bahamas licence area, he added that the initiative is designed to "accelerate" future underwater salvaging and exploration efforts so that this nation can discover more about its maritime and cultural history.

Noting that just three of the 170-plus sunken vessels may have been carrying so-called 'treasure', Mr Concannon pledged that Allen Exploration has no plans to sell any of the artifacts it may recover from these future sites or the focus of its current work - the wrecked Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas.

Recoveries from that wreck site are now on display at the Grand Bahama museum established by Allen Exploration and its principals, Carl and Gigi Allen, with the group believing that the true value of its work lies in showcasing the breadth and depth of this nation's underwater cultural heritage and stimulating sufficient interest among Bahamians that it ultimately leads to the creation of a local exploration/salvage industry.

Mr Concannon told this newspaper that "one of the first priorities" is to locate a wrecked slave trading vessel, adding that few ships engaged in the practice have ever been found intact. He disclosed that the Lost Ships Project's work and findings were recently unveiled at The Explorers Club in New York as part of World Ocean Week.

Allen Exploration worked with maritime historian, James Jenney, to quantify the number and nature of ships lost within its licence area which covers the western side of the Little Bahama Bank, extending from Freeport and Grand Bahama's southern coastline to Matanilla Reef in the north, and then south-east to Gorda Cay off south-west Abaco.

"The Bahamas has a reputation for being a ship trap. Part of the legend is fuelled by the archipelago’s location in the ‘Bermuda Triangle’," Allen Exploration, Mr Jenney and multiple other authors wrote in the introduction to the Lost Ships Project. "In reality, precious few wrecks have been discovered in its seas and no consensus exists for the volume of maritime losses beneath the waves.

"In 2023, The Bahamas Lost Ships Project was initiated by Allen Exploration and James Jenney to evaluate the character of shipping lost in the section of the northern Bahamas under archaeological survey by Allen Exploration. Some 176 maritime losses were identified within the historical record, dating between around 1526 and 1976."

The Bahamas' strategic geographic location continues to place it at the crossroads of major international shipping lanes, but the Lost Ships Project found that - of the 176 wrecks identified - just 19 have been located underwater. As a result, some 85 percent of this underwater heritage to-date remains undetected and undiscovered.

Describing the project as the first such mapping effort undertaken anywhere in The Bahamas and the Caribbean, the Lost Ships Project added: "To assess the scale and nature of shipping lost in The Bahamas, Allen Exploration collaborated with maritime historian James Jenney in 2023 to quantify historical evidence for shipwreck losses within the expedition’s licence area.......

"The Bahamas Lost Ships Project initiated with Allen Exploration recorded 176 wrecks within the survey zone, as well as 35 further possible events. This report summarises these maritime historical losses. To date, 19 shipwrecks have been identified underwater. Thus, a maximum 15 percent of the potential shipwrecked heritage has been detected archaeologically so far.

"In addition to informing Allen Exploration about the character of the maritime activity within the region under archaeological investigation, how it changed over time, and potentially guiding survey strategies, the project has wider significance. Underwater cultural heritage can only be managed once regional maps exist and distribution patterns and site characterizations are assessed. Developing indexes from historical accounts is a recognised major step in this process."

Mr Concannon told Tribune Business that the 176 ship wrecks were identified through researching historical archives rather than exploration at sea. He emphasised that Allen Exploration, which was licensed under the former Minnis administration, ultimately intends to develop a database of all shipping wrecks covering the entire Bahamas.

"Allen Exploration will apply for permits to search for the wrecks at sea and, if practical, to recover the shipwrecks," he confirmed. "The paper we published with the 170-plus shipwrecks for the Lost Ships Project only focused on our 'rough' license area.

"Many documents do not provide exact locations, so some wrecks may lay outside our licence area co-ordinates. The research is ongoing, we have collected data on shipwrecks outside our licence area, and we hope to have a completed database of shipwrecks in all of The Bahamas.

"Allen Exploration is deeply committed to advancing marine archaeology in The Bahamas, and particularly to teaching young people about the marine sciences and the rich heritage of The Bahamas located just offshore," Mr Concannon continued. "So much of The Bahamas' history is intertwined with the ocean. The stories of the country, its people, its customs and its history can be told by uncovering the past and bringing it back to where Bahamians can see it.

"The purpose of the Lost Ships Project is to accelerate future exploration in The Bahamas by cataloging as many of the wrecks as we can. Ironically, only three of the 170 ships identified so far could have 'treasure' on board. Most are regular merchant ships carrying ordinary trade goods like sugar and molasses.

"One of our first priorities is to find and recover a ship that was engaged in the slave trade. Very, very few intact slave ships have ever been found or recovered. I was part of an expedition in 2001 (with Allen Exploration archaeologist Jim Sinclair) that found and recovered artifacts from a mostly intact slave ship lost in 1810. However, the wreck, which was in international waters, was 16,000 feet deep," he added.

"We were only able to make three dives in the Russian Mir submersibles to explore the wreck site. Because of the extreme depth and currents, we were not able to do more. We are very excited that some of the ships found in the archives were likely engaged in the slave trade and they would be easier to find, recover and study."

Dr Michael Pateman, curator of Allen Exploration's Grand Bahama-based maritime museum, and former senior archaeologist at the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC), gave the Lost Ships Project presentation at The Explorers Club in New York. The explorer sponsored 'Bahamas Night' as part of the United Nations' (UN) World Ocean Week, and the event was attended by The Bahamas' New York consul general.

As to the economic benefits for The Bahamas, Mr Concannon said these lay in educating both citizens and the world about the country's underwater heritage and inspiring the creation of an exploration/salvaging industry, rather than in selling or auctioning recovered artifacts.

"Because Allen Exploration does not sell artifacts, the economic potential lies in the value of storytelling, education and motivating young people," he said. "I led the Apollo F-1 project for Jeff Bezos to 'inspire five-year-olds'. Jeff watched the Apollo 11 moon landing when he was five years-old, and it inspired him to do everything he has done since, including founding Amazon and Blue Origin.

"Amazon is worth approximately $1trn and Blue Origin will take people back to the moon and beyond. Jeff asked me to find and recover the Apollo F-1 engines that launched men to the moon because he believed that seeing these engines might motivate other young people to create and explore. Carl and Gigi Allen feel the same way about the potential impact of finding and recovering the history and culture of the Bahamas and sharing this with the Bahamian people, particularly young people.

"The economic impact to The Bahamas could be incalculable. What if one of these young people becomes a doctor, a scientist, a marine archaeologist or an entrepreneur? What if they founded another company like Amazon? It is impossible to say how much could they accomplish. Exploration is curiosity in action. The Allens hope to spark this curiosity in The Bahamas and let it go where it will."

The Lost Ships Project itself said: "The difference between the 176 maritime casualties identified and 19 wrecks ground-truthed to date by Allen Exploration highlights the area’s ongoing potential. Some 89 percent of the total inventory is yet to be discovered archaeologically.......

"The large number of ships lost in the survey zone identified in this study, and as yet unfound, provide a baseline for the region’s great archaeological potential. The future of the maritime archaeology of The Bahamas is extremely bright."

Mr Concannon acknowledged to Tribune Business: "The ocean does not give up its secrets easily. We can determine a few facts about the wrecks listed in the archives: When they sank, approximately where they sank, and what cargo they were carrying. We know very, very little about the histories of the people on board, the ships, or the era in which they were travelling. Again, the value lies in uncovering these stories and sharing the information.

"It is difficult to calculate the value of discovering and sharing what we can learn about the slave trade from a slave ship. How much history could we learn? How much about our heritage and customs could we learn? How valuable would it be to learn about the mistakes of the past so they are not repeated? The value of these discoveries cannot be measured in dollars. We try to look at the value as 'How much good can we do?'."


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