ST. ANN'S BAY, Jamaica — When he set sail with four small caravels on his final trip to the New World in 1502, the much-maligned Christopher Columbus confidently expected to find his long-sought shortcut to Asia and emerge from the disgrace that less than two years before had seen him stripped of honors and clapped in chains.
Instead, with two leaking caravels already abandoned in Panama after a year of perilous wandering, and the remaining two no longer seaworthy, the ailing 52-year-old admiral and his mutinous crew barely made it to the beach in this placid, still undeveloped bay on the north coast of Jamaica.
But the ancient mariner's misfortune--shipwrecked here for a year and five days only "a crossbow shot," as his son phrased it, from a band of increasingly hostile Arawak Indians--may be a boon to Jamaica and a team of Texas-based marine archeologists. They believe they have found the spot where Columbus--the fabled finder of America and now controversial historic figure--ran the two caravels aground 488 years ago.
"We are 98% sure they are here," said James M. Parrent of the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A&M University, who, in cooperation with the government of Jamaica, first began looking for the Columbus caravels in 1982.
After getting to work in earnest last summer, Parrent said, he hopes soon to unearth the keels and some of the lower hull planking of the caravels Capitana and Santiago de Palos--all that could be expected to remain after almost five centuries under the bay's bottom--for expert study and eventual display in a Jamaica museum.
"We are charged with locating perhaps the most important historic archeological site in the New World," said Parrent, noting that as the quincentennial of Columbus' first voyage in 1492 approaches, no other trace has been found of the ships he sailed. Thus, to Parrent and other marine archeologists, the prospect of unearthing the caravels is more exciting than finding a gold-laden treasure ship.
Not only would they be the oldest European vessels discovered in the Western Hemisphere and the only ones actually commanded by Columbus, Parrent said, but they would solve a simple question that has plagued naval architects and historians for centuries, namely: What did a caravel look like?
The Nina and Pinta--mainstays of Columbus' first voyage, the Spanish-underwritten expedition that launched him into much Western lore as the finder of America--were fast-sailing caravels that he preferred over the larger, more lumbering Santa Maria. Yet no reliable drawing, painting or naval architect's plan of any of the vessels has ever been found.
"The size and shape of these ships is not known," said Ywone Edwards, an archeologist from Jamaica's National Heritage Trust who is working with Parrent.
She said the best guesses of their length range from 70 feet to 90 feet, about the size of a good racing yacht, and speculations concerning their other dimensions and appearance are equally imprecise.
Although divers have uncovered the wreckage of other 16th-Century vessels thought to be similar to those Columbus sailed, there remains so much uncertainty that every attempt to construct replicas, including several now under way for quincentennial celebrations, has involved guesswork, Parrent said.
"Neither naval architectural plans nor actual remains of ships known to be caravels have been found," he said. "Important as they were to the discovery of the New World, we do not know how they were constructed."
Expert examination of what remains of the vessels should give a clear idea of how the caravels looked when they were built, the archeologist said. And artifacts found at the sites should say much about how the increasingly frail admiral and his crew of "115 men and boys" survived for more than a year and dealt with the natives on this remote and hostile shore.
Much of the story is already known from accounts of the adventure by Columbus and his son Ferdinand, then 15. They described the beaching of the two caravels and the construction of huts on their almost-awash decks, where the admiral confined his crew to avoid conflict with the initially friendly Arawaks less than a few hundred yards away.
For a time, the Indians traded food for beads and trinkets. But they eventually tired of baubles and were angered by the marauding of 50-odd crewmen who had mutinied and rampaged ashore. The Indians abruptly cut off all supplies.
Near desperation with what remained of his starving crew, the wily admiral was inspired to study his almanac and found that a total eclipse of the moon was predicted in just three days' time, on Feb. 29, 1504.