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The Nautical Archaeology of Puerto Rico

Richard Fontanez, Gustavo Garcia, Filipe Castro

This project was possible through the generous support of Mr. Charles Consolvo and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the James Goold and the Spain-USA Foundation, Dr. and Mrs. Peter Amaral, and CMAC. We wish to thank Dr. Kathleen Deagan as well for her precious help.


This project consisted of a survey on the north and west coasts of Puerto Rico and an assessment of the known shipwrecks.

Puerto Rico is located on the northeast corner of the Caribbean Basin, around coordinates N 18° 15″ and W 066° 30′.

The smallest of the Greater Antilles, archaeological evidence suggests that the island’s first inhabitants arrived between the years 7,000 and 4,000 BCE. Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico began in 1509, under the direction of lieutenant Juan Ponce de León.

The strategic location of Puerto Rico was praised since the early 16th century by both friends and enemies of Spain. This project intends to study country’s history through its shipwrecks.

The occupation of Puerto Rico dates to sometime between the 7th and 5th millennia BCE. When the first Spanish explorers landed on the island in 1493, during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, the archipelago had already been inhabited for several millennia.

During the years that followed Columbus’ first voyage, European parties visited the island regularly, some searching for gold, and some trying to introduce livestock and hoping that it thrived in order to be used in future expeditions.
The Spanish colonization of Puerto Rico officially began in 1509, under the stewardship of Juan Ponce de Léon (1474-1521). In that year de Ponce de Léon constructed a small settlement named Villa Caparra, located not far away from today’s San Juan Bay.

Although submerged prehistoric sites are known on the archipelago and some have been archaeologically excavated, so far no native watercraft has been found. Small craft from the early occupation period should exist, perhaps buried in the old river banks of the west coast and around San Juan.


Early 16th Century: The first years of colonization brought a significant quantity of Puerto Rican gold to the Spanish crown, and may have generated some ship traffic. In 1521 La Caparra was abandoned and its inhabitants resettled on the small island of San Juan Bautista, on the north margin of the bay. This new village of San Juan was said to have fewer mosquitoes, better access, and offered superior protection from piratical attacks. Traffic generated by gold mining and exploitation of the island may have attracted some unwanted attention from other European nations.

Although, to our knowledge, no shipwrecks dated to this period have yet been found, it is likely that ship derelicts and abandoned small watercraft may be preserved in the silt of the island’s river-mouths.

Unfortunately for nautical archaeologists, both existing maps and coastal geology demonstrate that the coast has advanced considerably in the last 400 years, and these important ship-remains may be buried under roads, buildings, harbor structures and industrial facilities. A word of caution should be written on behalf of these important archaeological remains. All construction works along the former coastal areas should be accompanied by archaeologists.

During the 1530s, the production of gold declined sharply, and by 1540 it had almost ceased. The economy of the island shifted to agricultural endeavors. Ginger, sugar, and livestock were now Puerto Rico’s source of wealth. The import and export of agricultural products and leather (cow-hides) generated a steady maritime traffic, and there are several shipwrecks registered during the second half of the 16th century.

Late 16th Century: Before and after its regulation in 1565, many ships from the flotas system called at San Juan to load water and victuals upon arrival in the Caribbean. Two of the three main Spanish routes into the New World passed by Puerto Rico, through either the Mona or the Anegada passages. The shipwrecks from this period have attracted the interest of treasure-hunters since the end of the Second World War, and some-mostly when found in shallow waters-may have been heavily looted.

Plagued by attacks from French pirates and privateers since its founding, San Juan quickly became a fortified city, responding to the latest developments in warfare and naval capability. Mainly developed in Italy, but quickly adopted by all European powers, improved ship and gun designs changed the way nations waged war in the late-16th century and forced the development of new fortifications and defensive strategies everywhere, including in Puerto Rico.

During the second half of the 16th century, Spanish power suffered from over-extension and economic stagnation. This depression was felt across the Atlantic, affecting the economies of Puerto Rico and the rest of Spain’s colonial empire. Concurrent with Spain’s fall was the rise of English maritime power. Although often exaggerated in British literature, the success of English privateers, such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins, forced a re-assessment of the Spanish defensive system in the New World. Between the late-16th and the late-18th centuries San Juan suffered four major attacks by English and Dutch forces.

In 1595 Francis Drake and John Hawkins led an English assault on Puerto Rico. Their fleet is said to have anchored near the Punta Palo Seco, off Isla de Cabras. Although the English succeed in burning a number of Spanish ships lying at anchor in San Juan Bay, the conquest attempt failed. According to Spanish accounts, Hawkins lost his life at Puerto Rico, and Drake lost many men and a small number of ship’s boats. These shipwrecks may have been almost entirely dredged during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Drake was reportedly wounded and limped from Puerto Rico to Panama, where he died.

Another attempt to take San Juan was carried out three years later, in 1598, by the 3rd Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford. His fleet anchored off Playa de Cangrejos and landed a large expeditionary force, which succeeded in capturing the fort of San Felipe del Morro, but it was not held for long, however. After only a short sojourn, the Earl of Cumberland abandoned his plans and left the island for good.

17th Century: Like the English, Dutch interest in the Caribbean expanded with the decline of Spanish power in the 16th and 17th centuries. After failing to retake the Brazilian city of Baía from the Portuguese, Dutch general Boudewijn Hendrikszoon sailed to Puerto Rico in the autumn of 1625 to seize San Juan. Though he managed to burn the city, which had been abandoned, he was not successful in conquering the citadel of El Morro, nor the island.

18th Century: In 1797, General Abercrombie launched another English attack to capture the island. The attempt failed and General Abercrombie’s force left Puerto Rico without losing any ships or boats. Historical documents suggest that ship traffic around Puerto Rico was greatly reduced during the 17th century. This was the result of a combination of general political and economic crisis in Europe, religious wars, and regulations within the fleet-system which excluded the island from trade. As its economy weakened, Puerto Rico attracted fewer vessels. During the 18th century the economic importance of Puerto Rico grew again, as the island became a center in the European fight for hegemony in the Caribbean.

During the last five centuries, ships have changed drastically in size, shape, function, and design methods. A comprehensive study of a collection of sites with ship-remains or traces of maritime-related human activity within the same geographical area will open an interesting window to the study of these particular artifacts-ships-in the context of both the history of the European expansion into the New World and the history of technology. Within the scope of this study we define archaeological sites as areas where single or complex archaeological remains have been identified.


The Puerto Rico project team was led by Richard Fontanez and encompassed Christopher Castellone, Filipe Castro, Gustavo Garcia, Wayne Lusardi, Raymond Tubby, and Juan Vera.


Castro, F., Fontánez, R., and Garcia, G., “Puerto Rico: La Universidad de Texas A&M y su Programa de Arqueología Náutica,” in Culture and Development, UNESCO (2015) 13: 76-79.

Castro, F., Fontanez, R., Garcia, G., Tubby, R., Lusardi, W., 2010. “The Nautical Archaeologyof Puerto Rico,”  International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 39.1: 156-164.

Castro, F., Cartellone, C., Vera, J., Fontanez, R., Garcia, G., and Fontanez, A., 2010. “The Nautical Archaeology in Puerto Rico: Summer 2010 Field Work” CMAC News and Reports, 2.2: 11-13.

Castro, F., Fontanez, R., Garcia, G., Tubby, R., Lusardi, W., 2009. “The Nautical Archaeology of Puerto Rico”, INA Annual, p. 72-79.

Castro, F., Fontánez, R., Garcia, G., Tubby, R., and Lusardi, W., 2008. The Nautical Archaeology of Puerto Rico, 2008 Field Season Report, College Station.