When Christopher Columbus landed in Venezuela in 1498 he introduced Europe to one of the most impressive places he had ever seen. He and his crew called it “Tierra de Gracia,” or “Land of Grace”, because it made them think of paradise……Nothing closer to the truth…. Since today there are still places in the Venezuelan geography where paradise remains frozen in time.
Soon after these first discoveries the Europeans turned their heads to the New World, mostly because of the richness already reported by many conquerors and explorers, a fact which triggered a huge race among the most important European nations of that time to explore and develop these newly discovered territories.
Today, five hundred years after, the remains of these enterprises can be seen not only in the Venezuela’s maritime landscape, represented by many fortresses and old towns along the coast, but also by hundreds of shipwrecks, some of which still are in place waiting to be studied by the present and next generations of underwater archaeologists, some of whom are already being trained thanks to the aid an support of institutions such as the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE), the University of Leiden, the Nautical Archaeological Society (NAS), the UNESCO, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
My interest in shipwrecks started in 1998 when I had the opportunity to arrange and participate in the initial survey of the French Fleet of the American Islands, wrecked in the Archipelago of Aves in 1678. After performing an initial research in the French Maritime archives and other historical resources I got very impressed not only by the fact that I probably was in front of one the most catastrophic and larger shipwrecks in the whole Caribbean, but that also I was among the few fortunate people in the world that had the opportunity to explore and research this extraordinary shipwreck at first hand. A fact which not only impressed me the most but also made me think of the importance of studying underwater archaeology in order to comprehend and protect this site.
Today this shipwreck, among many others also reported by fishermen and enthusiasts like me, along the Venezuelan coast, are of a great opportunity not only to know more about the Caribbean an the world history, but also of great relevance to awaken the importance and potential of the Venezuela’s underwater cultural heritage. Not only to the general public opinion, but also as a way to develop at the same time the necessary projects and programs which might help to study, protect and preserve these archaeological sites for future generations, with the hope that they might evolve through time into educational and museum projects, which may contribute to enrich not only Venezuela’s but also the world’s underwater heritage as well.
As a participant in the UNESCO Foundation Course for Underwater Cultural Heritage Management in the Caribbean being held at St. Eustatius, I wish to say thanks to Martijn Manders, Chris Underwood, Tatiana Villegas, Ruud Stelten, Reese Cook, Ryan Espersen, Hans van Tilburg and the professors Marlena and Andrzej Antczak for the opportunity of being part of this magnificent course, which eventually will be of great support for all the Venezuelan future underwater projects. Also I would like to thank my colleague students from Cuba, Bonaire, Curazao, Belize, Suriname, Republica Dominicana, The Netherlands, Haiti and South Africa for their kind friendship and support along the course.
Jose Miguel Perez Gomez
Undergraduate Student / School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester