"There’s a good chance we will find some liquor." Those aren't words you typically expect to hear from a doctoral candidate with two master degrees. But, then again, I'm on the phone with Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann, an emerging rock star in the archeology world who holds a position as Texas State University's Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Dive Training Officer. Perhaps you've heard of his work: In August, Fritz captured headlines and the imagination of rum lovers (and swashbuckling wannabes) around the world for discovering a shipwreck off the coast of Panama that possibly belongs to Welsh privateer Captain Henry Morgan. Yes, that Captain Morgan.
Worth its weight in folklore bullion, the vessel is possibly one of the five ships from Morgan's famed "lost fleet," which sank in 1671 in the shallow waters near the Lajas Reef at the mouth of Panama's Chagres River. The ships were lost in heavy seas on the reef shortly after Morgan -- acting on the imperial New World interests of the Crown -- raided Panama City in a successful attempt to take the Castillo de San Lorenzo, a Spanish fort guarding the entrance to the Chagres River. "The Spanish feared him so much that when he got around to sacking Panama City and had captured the fort at the mouth of the Chagres River, Fort San Lorenzo, the Spanish garrisons retreated before they even got there," Fritz explains.
On two previous trips in January 2008 and September 2010, Fritz's team discovered eight iron cannons believed to be from Morgan's ships. On his most recent expedition, which was funded by the Captain Morgan rum company, he found more artifacts, including a ship hull buried under the sand and mud that held wooden chests covered in coral. "We have barely scratched the surface in looking for Morgan’s lost fleet," he acknowledges. Still, one question lingers: Submerged for centuries under the waves of the Caribbean Sea, is there rum still inside those boxes?
The Captain Morgan rum company sure hopes so. In a statement, Brand Director Tom Herbst, said, "Captain Henry Morgan was a natural-born leader with a sense of adventure and an industrious spirit that the brand embraces today. When the opportunity arose for us to help make this discovery mission possible, it was a natural fit for us to get involved. The artifacts uncovered during this mission will help bring Henry Morgan and his adventures to life in a way never thought possible."
Morgan's ship isn't Fritz's first encounter with a pirate ship, either. While at Indiana University, Fritz helped discover remains from a ship off the coast of the Dominican Republic believed to be Captain Kidd's Quedagh Merchant. Right before calling BroBible, Fritz -- perhaps the ultimate Bro academic -- had just finished a diving in Texas State's spring-fed lake. An accomplished diver, Fritz doesn't even know how many dives he's been on. "Over a thousand, but it's hard to count exactly how many to be honest with you." What follows below is our fascinating conversation on underwater archeology, pirates, and, specifically, his work preserving and unraveling the mysteries of Captain Morgan's lost fleet.
Brandon Wenerd: How did you get into underwater archeology?
Fritz Hanselmann: Underwater archeology has been a passion for me since I was a little child. I grew up watching the Jacque Cousteau re-runs and devoured any book on history, especially ones about conquest and colonization. I also read biographies about famous mariners in the colonial era of the Americas and the Western Hemisphere. This has been a long time in the making and it’s a career that definitely works for me. I love my job but I can’t say I get cut much slack when I come home and complain about a rough day at the office.
You mention a “rough day at the office,” but do underwater archaeologists have even have an office?
I do have an office at Texas State University in the Center for Archeological Studies. That’s my base of operations pretty much. I bounce between my office on campus and the River Systems Institute here. Additionally, the head waters of the San Marcus River are found on campus as well, which is where I went diving this morning.
Just this morning?
Yeah. We have a spring-fed lake on campus where we take classes to after they receive dive training. There’s actually prehistoric arrowheads, spear points, and stone tools in the lake, so I have a project that I’m doing there with that as well. So I typically split my time with being underwater or between the two working stations on campus.
How did you exactly fall into that specific discipline of pirate shipwrecks?
Good question. In 2007 when I was at Indiana University, we were exploring the coastal waters surrounding the Dominican Republic, looking for ships that were lost during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1495. We received a phone call from the Dominican government asking us if we would be so kind as to survey a site that had recently come to light. Through a number of years of excavation and investigation, that site was made out to be a ship that was abandoned in 1699 by Captain Kidd.
So it kind of blossomed from there. I’m really interested in the connection between history and archeology; the written record and the archeological record. We read about it all the time, but there are very few instances that we get to interact or even touch history. That’s what archeology does: Make history tangible. So this interest in pirates and shipwrecks stemmed from this initial work on the Captain Kidd wreck.
I was asked to join a research expedition to Panama in 2008 where we surveyed the Lajas Reef in the general area of the mouth of the Chagres River. We researched the area and the 500 years of history that has been there since Colombus first found that area on his fourth voyage in 1502. Since I happen to be the “pirate guy” I was asked to look into the Henry Morgan aspect of it -- with what happened to the ships. It turned into this big thing with the lost ships of Henry Morgan as a project. In that area of Panama, there’s a rich archeological history, where the initial survey yielded artifacts from early Spanish colonial period all the way to the California Gold Rush of 1849. It’s truly a phenomenal area.
There are some discrepancies about whether Kidd was a pirate or a privateer. Where do you fall in that argument?
Well Kidd’s case is different from most, where he did have a privateer commission from England and he was allowed to capture ships that were considered to be enemies of the state. In that time period, these enemies were mostly French and the pirates in the Indian Ocean. In the Indian Ocean he took over a ship that was flying French colors, but when he got on board it was discovered to be carrying merchandise and trade goods belonging to an Indian mogul. So when word got out that he did that, he was labeled as a pirate. Problems arose when he took over the ship, even though he thought he was doing it completely legal. He was also hanged for that, along with two other charges that were brought up.
Henry Morgan was more of a clear-cut case. He had a privateer commission from England with a militia of sorts to protect Jamaica from the Spanish. He was viewed as a privateer and a hero by the English and was seen as a pirate and a terror on all the seas by the Spanish. The Spanish feared him so much that when he got around to sacking Panama City and after they captured the fort at the mouth of the Chagres River, Fort San Lorenzo, the Spanish garrisons retreated before they even got there.
Let's talk about Captain Morgan's fleet. The wreck was in shallow waters, correct?
The cannons were in shallow water between 10 and 19 feet. They were scattered all along the reef that he reportedly had run aground on.
And you found cargo boxes and chests right?
Yes, this past summer we returned since we had cannons so now we wanted to find the rest of the ship. The Captain Morgan Rum Company funded our three-week field season in Panama, which allowed us to conduct a magnetometer survey to pinpoint the locations of any historic wreck in the area. We had enough money left to excavate at one of the sites to see what we would uncover. And we uncovered remains of an actual ship along with its cargo hold of chests stacked properly.