Haiti’s government has formed a commission to help settle the question of whether remnants of a shipwreck off the country’s north coast belongs to explorer Christopher Columbus’ storied flagship, the Santa Maria.
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe announced the group in the wake of a visit with leading underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who earlier this month announced that he believed a ballast pile found on a reef — and a now missing cannon, which he first saw 10 years ago — belonged to the ship that led Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas but was later damaged on Christmas Day in 1492 in what is now Haiti.
For centuries, the ship’s fate has puzzled historians and archaeologists who in recent years have searched towns in northern Haiti for the ship’s remains and a fortified village called La Navidad, which is said to have been built with the ship’s planks.
Meanwhile, Haiti for centuries has laid claim to an anchor — currently on display at its national pantheon museum in Port-au-Prince — that scholars and academics say belonged to the vessel, further fueling skepticism by some about media reports that portrayed Clifford’s find as the first substantial evidence linking the Santa Maria to Haiti.
The commission’s main task will be to establish the guidelines for the final exploration of the site.
Clifford met with Lamothe on Wednesday during which he laid out his findings to the prime minister, as well as the minister of foreign relations, culture and tourism. He was accompanied by History Channel executive producer Adam Bullmore and director Dov Freedman.
The Haitian government has been closely following the story, with Culture Minister Monique Rocourt telling The Miami Herald in a recent interview that the ultimate challenge will be to link what Haitians and others have been taught through history about the ship’s fate with “what is being said right now.”
“It’s going to be the subject of a long investigation,” she said.
Clifford has said the evidence he and his team found in less than 20 feet of water not far from Cap-Haitien makes this the “best candidate ever for the Santa Maria.”
“This finding is for the Haitian people, and if the remains turn out to be those of the Santa Maria, it will be up to the Haitian government to determine what to do with them,” he told Haitian officials this week.
The government’s commission will be led by Rocourt and include Tourism Minister Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin; the executive director of the Museum of the Haitian National Pantheon Michele Frisch and Clifford. Members already have asked Clifford to submit an exploration plan in accordance with UNESCO guidelines, as part of Haiti’s efforts to protect its underwater cultural heritage.
“While taking all necessary precautions and adhering to UNESCO protocol guidelines, the Haitian government welcomes the news and attention such a discovery could bring to Haiti,” Lamothe said.
Clifford is expected to provide the plan within the next two weeks, and work on determining if the find is the Santa Maria could begin as early as July 1.