Cahuita Community and Shipwrecks

The point in present-day Cahuita National Park was the old Cahuita village until 1915. In 1828 William Smith (old Smith), an English speaking Afro-Caribbean left Panama to make a new home at the point. It was one of his favorite fishing camps where he hunted turtles and planted coconuts, yams, cassava and plantains. Shortly after his arrival, he built a rustic, thatch roofed dwelling in a grove of lime trees. Later he built more houses for his Indian wives, 52 children and frequent guests (Palmer 1993:15). A Swedish biologist who visited Cahuita point in 1882 elaborated:

“…pretty buildings surrounded by enchanting flower gardens, right up on the sea shore…Cahuita is a large colony of blacks with about 15 houses spread out along the beach. The residents make their living by extracting rubber and by fishing. The green turtle is the most prized catch. They sell the rubber and the hawksbill in Puerto Limon. They are valiant and able sailors…” (Palmer 1993:74).

Smith also brought the first sailing boats to the Cahuita area. These included 50-feet long Alquina and 80-feet long Whisper which carried everything from livestock, fruits, furniture and passengers to Limon in the north and Bocas in the south. Two other vessels that frequented the area were the launch Perseverance from 1909 and Vanguardia from 1912. An American company, Maduro and Sons based in Limon owned Vanguardia and used this vessel, equipped with a small engine, primarily for transporting cargoes of turtles and passengers.  Another vessel Smith rebuilt in his later years was named Cahuita. A local, Simeon Hudson, captained the vessel for him. After Hudson’s retirement from this job, Smith sank Cahuita in front of his home for unknown reasons (Palmer 1993:66-69, 71).

Since the nineteenth century, the Cahuita community has engaged with the Park shipwreck sites in many ways. Selles Johnson, grandson of William Smith, born in 1894 and an engineer aboard Vanguardia at age 18, told a story about his grandfather’s experiences. “Old Smith” reportedly found two wrecks on the north side of Cahuita Point in the early 1800s (Palmer 1993:20-21). Based upon his own experiences on the site and the artifacts he and his grandfather found, Johnson believed these wrecks are two separate pirate ships — one French and one Spanish. Johnson’s story about what happened to the two supposed pirate ships off Cahuita Point is very detailed.

He speculated that that the ships were hiding in Puerto Vargas, just south of Cahuita. Upon coming around the point, they saw smoke from an English vessel patrolling the area and tried to go around the point to hid away wrecking on reef (Palmer 1993:26). Whether or not Johnson’s story is true, it does correspond to historical events. Sparsely populated by its Spanish colonizers, the Costa Rican coastline was a haven for pirates. As an added attraction, the nearby port of Porto Belo, Panama supplied lucrative prizes. Johnson  claimed:

“…pirates was all around here those old days. They was wrecking the people, robbing the people, in Bocas, Portobelo, and all along the coast. You see they go over and rob the Indians and tell them to show them gold, where the gold mines is, and the Indians know, and then they rob them and kill them” (Johnson in Palmer 2005:25).

Johnson not only provided historical background for his pirate argument, he discusses a wreck at Cahuita Point. As a child, he free dived on the wreck and found all sorts of objects, besides the large cannon on the seabed. He continually talked about the bottles he discovered and recovered. These bottles, he stated, had French and Spanish inscriptions, which led him to his conclusions about the nationalities of the wrecks. The bottles also allowed him and his grandfather to surmise when the wreckage occurred. He recalled, “They had some bottles we found in the water. Those bottles was made in 1717. It marks it. But we don’t know if the wreck was that said year, because maybe the bottles was older than that” (Palmer 1993:19-20).

Selles elaborated on specific details regarding artifacts recovered from the site. These included two brass cannons recovered by Madura and Sons, a Limon trading Company and another by a man named Bob Martin who worked for the United fruit Company. They left the iron cannon in the water, possibly the two remaining cannon on the Brick Site today. Another group from the United States recovered “silver cups, silver spoons, a French sword and links of the chain that tied the ship to the tree.” (Palmer 1993:21). Another pertinent part of the story was mention of the shoreline extending at least two hundred meters beyond the current beachline. During Selles’s childhood the reef was much nearer to the houses at Cahuita Point. This meant the Brick site was closer to the beach and possibly an easier site for artifact recovery (Palmer 1993:65).

As part of the Phase 1 project Maria Suarez gathered further community information that complement some of these stories Palmer gathered for the book What Happen for a forthcoming publication. Suarez’s information expands the narrative of community connections to the shipwrecks into the 20th century. A 70-year old fisherman in the Cahuita community described diving on “fourteen cannons, three anchors, and many glass bottles, and also 5 gallon demi-johns.” This was undoubtedly the Cannon Site. He sold the bottles collected from the site to a Panamanian collector for $5 each. There was also mention of an Englishman who visited the area and the shipwreck in 1968. This visitor was a researcher who helped local divers to identify “medals” from shipwreck with inscriptions for turtle hunting [licenses?] and the official stamp of the authorities to perform slave trade transactions. His conclusion was that the ship initially brought slaves, but afterwards used for turtle hunting expeditions.

Another community informant lived in Limon during the 1960s. He was a diver and oyster collector working near the Vizcaya River selling his catch mainly to Chinese inhabitants. In 2009 during a time of financial crisis, he decided to search for treasures from the sea and the shipwrecks in the National Park of Cahuita were valuable assets. He inherited the passion to look for objects on land and underwater from his parents and grandparents, who endorsed this as a living because the objects did any longer belong to anyone.

A 40-year old fisherman interviewed discussed his close connection to the sea since the age of 6 years. The old cannons underwater were the most interesting for fishing and diving in Cahuita, providing homes to octopus and lobster. He also noted “…since that time I found with the cannons, anchors, bricks, bottles old and other things of shipwrecks in the sea.” He recovered many of these objects because they were not of value to their Costa Rica traditions or culture. His father told him the shipwrecks belonged to pirates who wrecked on the reefs around Punta Cahuita. Thus, it was not part of their heritage as these ships belonged to outsiders and pirates operating illegally in their waters.

Another theme in the interviews was the “magical” aura and lighting at Punta Cahuita that many members of the community had witnessed. They were described as bright lights on the sea after a storm, water moving around like a blender, noises like a UFO had landed on the beach, night diving in the sea and hearing music, a window opening under the sea to view the ribs of a large ship with great walls of chains, rings and shackles, and long pieces of wood with one ring next to another. Whether this was folklore passes down through the generations or current experiences of the interviewees is unclear. It mirrors some of the folklore printed on menu of restaurant Tipico in Cahuita.

“Ya see, my story begins in the early 1700s. There was a lot of trouble along the Caribbean coast and many people were involved in kidnapping people from other lands as far south as Africa. Back then slaves came up into Europe and Canada-even what todays is known as the United States of America. But back then, some of the captains of clipper ships traveling along coast did not know about the huge coral reef sitting way out in the ocean just off our coastline. Those huge ships would ram and rip big holes in the bottoms of the boats. Now the slaves were all chained together and those sailors who cared about saving lives would man to unlock them. Everyone would race together up to the top deck and jump into the foaming sea hoping to swim to safety and to shore. Now hidden in the trees along the beach were members of the Miskito tribe. They quickly dove into the ocean waves and dragged the slaves way back into the dense protective rainforest and hide them away from their captors. In the years to come the tribe invited travelers to make new families with their own people…”

Suarez’s informants noted that at the beginning of the 18th century when the two Danish Galleons arrived on the shores of the Southern Caribbean, relations between Indians and Africans were troubled, in addition to the conflict with Spanish, Creole, English and others. Historical evidence reveals that during the colonial period, especially late 1600s and early 1700s, Miskitos (group of mixed ethnicity African/Indigenous Central American ) raided, captured and traded Indian, African, and Creole slaves. Raiding enemies was a common occurrence and Miskito men often took enemy women as wives. Trade transactions with English privateers and pirates in Central America was another characteristic of this era. These captives were often sold in Jamaican markets (Helms 1983:179-181).

Addressing interactions between the locals and indigenous peoples, Cahuita informants speculated that early African in the area did not escape or flee into the Talamanca Mountains. In fact, they did not disappear from the landscape at all. Rather, they were assimilated into the present day Bri Bri population with a matrilineal clan system. If a Bri Bri women had a black child it belonged to the clan and considered indigenous, not black or African, despite the fathers ethnicity or skin color.

These scenarios are all likely narratives that apply to the story of the Cahuita shipwrecks, crew, slaves and recovery of artifacts from the wreck sites.