In the shallow waters surrounding Lajas Reef at the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama, a team of archaeologists — including members from Texas State University — has recovered cannons from the site where infamous privateer Captain Henry Morgan’s ships wrecked in 1671 while carrying Morgan and his men to raid Panama City.
Six iron cannons recovered from the reef are now undergoing study and preservation treatment by Panamanian researchers in cooperation with a team that has been studying the Chagres River with the permission of Panama’s Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC).
“Very little is known archaeologically about English privateers, especially in regards to their activity in Panama,” said Frederick Hanselmann, research professor with the River Systems Institute and Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State. “This represents a unique opportunity to fill in a gap in our knowledge of some very exciting and controversial human activity of that time period.”
The team, drawn from the ranks of Texas State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Waitt Insitute, and the Instituto Nacional de Cultura explained how the discovery provides the first tangible archaeological link to the activities of Morgan in Panama, whose raid led to the destruction of Panama City. Amazingly, archaeologists have yet to find any direct evidence of Morgan’s men at the ruins of Panama Viejo, the city destroyed during Morgan’s raid, and have only uncovered one faint trace of the fire that devastated the old city in 1671.
Raul Castro Zachrisson, secretary general of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura said, “Panama’s National Institute of Culture (INAC) is committed to the preservation of our cultural heritage. We strive to maintain it in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. I am honored to be a part of this important historical find and look forward to a continuous working relationship with all the institutions and professionals involved in the conservation of our sub aquatic cultural and natural resources.”
Since 2008, an underwater archaeology team led by archaeologists James Delgado, Hanselmann, and Dominique Rissolo has surveyed, mapped, and documented submerged sites, shipwrecks, and the 500-years of maritime history that rests along the banks of the Rio Chagres. In a Feb. 24 press conference in Panama City the team announced the recovery of the cannons from a shallow reef damaged by treasure hunters, whose blasting and dredging had exposed the fragile iron cannons to possible damage and loss. This led to the decision to recover the cannons. The cannon were measured and photographed in 2008 and studied by Ruth Brown, formerly with the Royal Armouries in the U.K. and an internationally renowned early cannon expert. The size and shape of the cannons appears to be a close match with the characteristics of small iron cannon of the 17th century; a more definitive identification of the cannons will take place after they are treated and years of encrustation and corrosion are removed in the laboratory.
“The clearest evidence is the traces of fire found on the stairs of the Cabildo structure at the side of the ruins of the Cathedral tower, which represents the level of destruction and abandonment of the building and, presumably the whole population. However, conflicting versions exist regarding who and how the fire was started,” said Tomás Mendizabal, Panamanian archaeologist and part of the expedition.
Prior to plundering and burning the original site of Panama City in 1671, Morgan sent an advance party of 470 men in three ships with the task of storming the Spanish fort on the cliff overlooking the entrance to the Chagres River, the Castillo de San Lorenzo el Real de Chagres. Five days after the capture, Morgan in his flagship Satisfaction and the rest of his privateer fleet arrived at the fort to find the British flag flying. The cheers from those on the cliff and those on board the ships soon turned to horror as Satisfaction ran head on into Lajas Reef, which lay in the path of the river covered by a mere few feet of water. Three to four more ships followed the Morgan onto the reef. The ships were shattered and none was recovered. Morgan and his men paddled upriver and walked overland and finally sacked Panama City, returning to the Caribbean from the same route, abandoning the shipwrecks in their wake.
Funded by the Waitt Institute and in collaboration with the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC), the results from the first-ever archaeological survey of the submerged cultural resources at the mouth of the Chagres River in 2008 yielded a vast array of archaeological artifacts from more than 500 years of maritime activity at the mouth of the river, including the cannons. The team returned in 2010 to recover the cannons from the reef under permit from INAC. The cannons will now be treated at the conservation facilities of the Patronato Panamá Viejo to reverse centuries of salt water intrusion and chemical changes that if left untreated will result in their disintegration.
“For the Patronato Panamá Viejo it is very important to be the final depository of the six recovered cannons from the mouth of the Chagres,” said the office of the Patronato Panamá Viejo. “The inclusion of these cannons in our exhibits is of great importance and will greatly enrich our hall on piracy.”
The Patronato Panamá Viejo has more than 15 years of experience in conservation at its laboratory facilities, the only in the country, specializing in the treatment and preservation of metals. During the conservation process, one of the cannons will be exhibited in order to educate visitors on the conservation process as well as the rich history of the country of Panama.
“The Río Chagres was in many ways the original Panama Canal,” said James Delgado, past president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and now the director of maritime heritage for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “For five centuries, following in the wake of Panama’s indigenous peoples, Spanish explorers, English freebooters, traders, gold seeking Yankees enroute to California, soldiers and citizens have used the river as a highway that nearly crosses the isthmus. As these cannons demonstrate, those centuries of human activity have left a tangible trace in the archaeological record which is an important part of Panamna’s cultural patrimony as being of international significance and interest.”
Dominique Rissolo, executive director of the Waitt Institute, which supported the project, said, “Panama’s maritime heritage is among the richest and most fascinating in all of the Americas, yet it has long been threatened by ‘modern-day Morgans’ in search of sunken treasures and trinkets. Our team is privileged to be collaborating with inspired and talented Panamanian leaders and scholars who share our desire to study and conserve the nation’s submerged past and to accelerate the pace of discovery and protection. This is an exciting time for archaeology in Panama and we are very fortunate to be a part of it.”
Hanselmann said, “Archaeology is a very popular and romantic topic. From the professional to the avocational level, we are all fascinated with what we learn about our collective past. This project aims to also make its discoveries accessible to the public through a variety of venues in the future, which will also hopefully provide an impetus for economic development through cultural heritage tourism. For now we are concentrating on continued survey for the actual remains of the vessels to better inform efforts in research, management, and preservation, in addition to the conservation of the cannons that we have recovered.”
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