Treasure hunters have long been obsessed with retrieving shiny gold doubloons and dazzling jewels from shipwrecks in the Bahamas.
But these wrecks are worth far more than the treasures they hide below the ocean’s surface; they also offer a window into the past, revealing new information about politics, shipping routes, navigation, shipbuilding, slavery and more.
Now, researchers want to shine a light on the sunken vessels’ rich archaeological, historical and cultural treasure value. To start, they’ve created a new master map of the wrecks surrounding some of the Bahamas islands in the west Atlantic Ocean.
The new map—and accompanying findings—will go on display this autumn as part of an interactive exhibition at the Bahamas Maritime Museum.
James Jenney, a maritime historian who led research efforts for the project, told Smithsonian magazine:
“Beyond seaborne conquistadors hauling gold, silver, emeralds and pearls back to Spain, mapping the wrecks of the Bahamas has uncovered the forgotten lives of merchants, warships, fishermen, slavers and even ancient salvors.”
The project is a collaboration between Jenney and Allen Exploration, a company partnering with the Bahamian government to study the area’s shipwrecks and maritime history.
Perhaps most famously, Allen Exploration’s team has been surveying and recovering treasures from the wreck of the Maravillas, a Spanish ship loaded with gold, silver and gems that sank in 1656.
Carl Allen, the company’s founder, said in a statement:
“In our dives we trip over wreck after wreck.”
“For decades, the Bahamas’ lost ships have been silent phantoms. So many ships of war and trade sailed through and sank in these waters. Finally, we’re figuring out their names, stories and the excitement of what’s still down there.”
The Cruel Sea
While hurricanes plague the Bahamas, most of the ships sunk after running into reefs or island shores, according to the researchers. This made them easy pickings for divers who could salvage and sell their cargoes.
According to the historical records, Bahamian salvors retrieved cargo from 60 ships between 1656 and 1908, grabbing gunpowder, cotton, sugar, molasses and nearly anything else they could get their hands on.
For their efforts, they typically took home between 45 and 66 percent of the cargoes’ value, per the researchers. Of the 176 shipwrecks researchers recently found in archival materials, only 19 have been identified underwater so far, meaning the area is ripe for further hands-on exploration.