Excerpt from Under the Waters of Mexico soon to be reprinted - Chapter 2
Some of the thousands of different objects salvaged by Cedam's divers from El Mantancero
The eternal craving for new horizons was now channeled to activities combining the sport of diving with the investigation and salvaging of vestiges of ancient civilizations. This enterprise took us to Tulum, the fantastic walled city on the coast of Yucatán, jutting sharply over the Caribbean. Tulum is a fortress city, a rocky monument to the Mayan warriors of the past. Because of its strategic location it suggests that long before the beginning of the Christian Era, the Caribbean was the center of intersecting maritime routes of the world, a place of adventure, struggle, and ambitions.
It was in this legendary sea that CEDAM was to begin its work. Cozumel.... Punta Matanceros . Acumal. _ Isla Mujeres.... Cancún.. Dzilam.. Punta Soliman.... Xeláh.... Muyil. Chunyaxché.... Punta Pájaros.. These are so many windows from Mexico to that turbulent and legendary Caribbean Sea out of which rose the major part of the history of our America, amid blood and gunpowder, pirates and buccaneers, and royal intrigue. Steep rocks, cliffs, large crests of rocky shores look like the topmasts of so many ships sunk in its waters, imprisoned now by coral in the stormy depths, or calcified by the tropical storm which gives life-and destroys. History and legend tell us of discoveries, conquests, and wars between the nations of Europe-England, France, Holland and Spain-taking place not on their own territories, but here in this Caribbean Sea. Here these nations concealed behind the religious banners of Catholics, Protestants, Huguenots, their real designs for territorial expansion and slave traffic, so that they might take possession of pieces of the new continent. Here the exploits of pirates and corsairs, as well as the struggles of the liberators, took place, under blinding clouds of violence, adventure, and war without quarter.
That day in 1492 when Columbus changed the name of Guanahani (Island of the Iguanas) to San Salvador, saw the beginning of the collapse of the great civilizations of America, those of our Mayas and Aztecs, spreading south beyond Panama; and the great Inca civilizations in Peru and South America. But it was also the beginning of an era of turbulence which lasted nearly three centuries, all taking place in the waters of the Caribbean.
Some of the 4800 pieces brought by CEDAM during "Operation Cenote" in conjunction with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and the National Geographic Society
This historic sea was crossed by Hernando Cortés, who took possession of Mexico. Along other routes, that of the Island of Cozumel, bold Francisco de Montejo attacked the Mayas. Here, between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, CEDAM succeeded in salvaging three cannon and an anchor, certified by an official of the Smithsonian Institution as belonging to a Spanish ship of the sixteenth century.
Our work, as will be seen in due time, gives reason to believe, from investigations made by Jesús Bracamontes, of the group of technical investigators of our Club, that the ship located in Cancún was one of those belonging to Governor Montejo, bearing the name of La Nicolas
From that Mayan civilization, projected over the greater part of the continent, there still remain vestiges, archaeological treasures, witnesses of history, silently urging and inviting discovery. Word of the fabulous treasures of Mexico and Potosi had traveled through Europe, greedy for riches; and many nations of the Old World hastened to take part in the booty.
They did it craftily. They could not do it by open and outright warfare; instead, they launched upon the seas pirates who often traveled under letters of marque. These were not the grotesque pirates so picturesquely depicted by Stevenson in Treasure Island. There were no wooden legs, no hooked hands, no black flags. These were highwaymen working under instructions from their governments, and, at times, their knavery won for them the title and accolade of "Insight" from a British Queen.
The first buccaneer to appear on the Caribbean's turbulent scene, according to reports, was Giovanni de Verrazano, a Florentine who operated under orders from France. In Spain they called him Juan Florentino, or "The Frenchman." His men were rugged cutthroats who knew how to pierce the heart of the enemy as well as they knew the operations of a ship. Besides being a sea robber, Verrazano or Florentine was a man of prodigious memory and an intuitive cartographer. From information given him by his brother Hieronimus and from his own recollections of his sea travels, he traced the countours of a map of the world, which served as a model for later cartographers.
In order to reach the altar in the interior of the cave at the inlet of Xelah, expeditionaries had to swim in through this small entrance.
Before his star declined, he had recorded in his log more than 150 ships, galleons, and galleys, which he had sent to the bottom of the sea. Once he was taken prisoner, and frightened by the presence of the executioner, he exclaimed: "Oh, God, who have permitted this to happen! Oh, Fortune, who have brought me to this! Is it possible that I, who have killed so many, must die at the hands of one man?" He offered 30,000 ducats for his escape. But he did not escape.
From that time, the most adventurous career for the youth of Europe was that of a pirate. On the other hand, powerful companies were formed for traffic in spices or slaves.
And all of this took place in the Caribbean, where Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, and even Danes, had hideouts where their officials or semiofficial pirates took shelter in the various islands. Sometimes they fought among themselves, and most of them were double-crossers. The only thing in which they were in agreement was in considering Spain as "The Common Enemy" whom it was necessary to annihilate.
In the Caribbean, therefore, rose men like Hawkins and the fascinating figure of Francis Drake, Buccaneer of the Royal Order, whose outstanding filibustering accomplishments were rewarded by Queen Elizabeth, who gave the title of Knight of the Crown to the barbarous captain of the Sea Dogs, nom de guerre of the British pirates.
Drake passed on to the Great Beyond in the locale of his notorious feats: the Caribbean. Like all great admirals, he died in the bunk of his cabin and was buried at sea. But his personality was such that Lope de Vega himself dedicated a long poem and an epitaph to him, which has mourned through the years over the underwater tomb of the fantastic pirate, king and master of the seas.
Within an animal's rude sepulchre,
Beyond the gates of chaste Jerusalem
No trophied temple decked with sword and spear.
You will remain forever, O wild beast,
Mourned aptly by the creatures of the deep
Who gnaw their way in black oblivion
Through bunk and plank in waters fathomless
Until they taste your miserable bones.
The only remnant of the wall built by the garrison left by Francisco de Montejo during the conquest of Yucatan
The list of the pirates of the Caribbean would be as interminable as the naval battles fought in its waters and the assaults made from its hiding places.
A memento of the most regal of all the buccaneers was found by the men of CEDAM in a poor cemetery in the port of Dzilam, near Progreso in Yucatán. A stone there says: JEAN LAFITTE REEXHUMED. This is all that remains of the Haitian-French corsair, who was lord and master of New Orleans for so long, and who made General Jackson take back his epithets of 'Criminal" and "Bandit" to declare him publicly a "Gentleman and Patriot." Without the pirates of Barataria, governed by Lafitte, the United States would have lost one of its decisive battles in its war against England.
This is the Caribbean-bloody, legendary, mysterious. Nevertheless, it was upon its waters that a great deal of the personality of the New World was forged. Buccaneers of the Caribbean collaborated with Bolivar in the liberation of South America.
Now another type of adventurer has arisen. The modern pirates have returned to this turbulent sea and followed the routes of their ancestors. They came preferably to the Mexican Caribbean to avail themselves of treasures from ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations that a invaluable, either for their historical significance or their intrinsic value. They came in hopes that by good fortune they might find one of those remarkable galleons and brigs which were sunk along our coasts while bound for Spain carrying gold and rich merchandise.
Cedam's divers en route to where the wreck of El Matancero had been located
It was in order to make these depredations difficult that men of goodwill have organized the Club of Explorations and Water Sports of Mexico (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuáticos de México). Their aim is to serve their country by turning over to the Federal Government whatever can be salvaged from the wrecks buried in the bottom of the Caribbean.
They also engage in a mission of service, and they do it with enthusiasm and absolute disinterest, ignoring the risks and the fatigue involved.
This book has been written to show how CEDAM came into being, to tell something about its directors and members, and to give the results of its expeditions in the Caribbean conducted under the Mexican flag during 1959, 1960 and 1961.
Order the new edition being published in May 2009