While hunting for the lost ship of the famed buccaneer Captain Henry Morgan – yeah, the one immortalized on the rum bottle – archaeologists instead found a mysterious seventeenth-century Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Panama.
Four years and countless hours of historical sleuthing later, researchers have determined that the ship that made its watery grave in Central America is the Spanish merchant ship Encarnación that sank during a storm in 1681 near the mouth of the Chagres River on the Caribbean side of Panama.
The Mexican built ship, part of Spain's Tierra Firme fleet that was the economic lifeline of 17th-century Spain, sank in less than 40 feet of water but somehow escaped major looting and was surprisingly well-preserved when the underwater explorers came across its remains.
The discovery of the nearly intact Encarnación is a major discovery in the archaeological world as only 16 Spanish shipwrecks have been discovered in the Americas and most have have been heavily damaged by ocean bacteria and shipworms that feed on exposed wood, usually destroying what looters haven't taken.
"Thus we know very, very little about 17th-century Spanish shipwrecks," Jennifer McKinnon, a maritime archaeologist at East Carolina University told National Geographic.
Other scientists say that this ship will give researchers insight into Spain's economic pipeline between the New World and Europe during the Colonial era.
"It is the rise of capitalism, imperialism, rationalism, and the middle classes that are going to buy art and consume literature," said Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University.
Researchers say that they stumbled upon the Encarnación by accident while searching for Morgan's missing ships. At the height of his power, the famed pirate commanded a fleet of 36 ships and more than 1,000 men.
Eleven years before the Encarnación sunk, five ships in Morgan's fleet went down near the mouth of Chagres River while the pirate was on his way to sack Panama City.