I first met Carl Allen after Hurricane Dorian tore through the Bahamas in 2019. He had just donated the use of his 182-foot-long yacht support vessel. AXIS to help people on some of the hardest hit islands in the Abaco.
During that first meeting, I learned how much Allen and his family care about the Bahamas. I also learned—kind of– why he had such a serious support vessel, capable of transporting and deploying a Triton submarine, numerous outboard motor boats and teams of divers as well. Back then, all he said was… “We like looking for stuff underwater.”
It turns out that his company – Allen Exploration – has found a lot of “stuff” underwater in his beloved Bahamas. In fact, the brand new Bahamas Maritime Museum his team built in Freeport, Grand Bahama to display many of the priceless artifacts they salvaged from the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas which sank off the Bahamas on January 4, 1656, opens to the public on August 8.
As you might guess from an avid underwater explorer, Allen is a wonderful combination of realism, romance, and history buff. He is realistic when talking about the difficulty, frustration and cost of retrieving artifacts (using AXIS and other boats) that have been scattered across countless miles of open ocean can be. “It’s like looking for a needle…in a desert…under water,” he says.
But he is a romantic when he evokes the myth of the Maravillas which has occupied his imagination since a very young age. And he’s a history buff when he starts talking about what life must have been like in 1656. In fact, he can talk for hours – from memory – about all the historical documents that the archaeologists with whom he works have found (and translated from 17th century Spanish) which paint a detailed picture of who the crew and passengers were, as well as listing the large number of gold and silver coins, silver bars and loose gemstones and many other artifacts it was carrying when it sank.
One of the most amazing artifacts Allen and his team have found so far is a 5 feet, 9 inches long gold chain that weighs almost 2 complete books which was probably intended for a wealthy aristocrat or even royalty. Allen Exploration’s chief marine archaeologist, James Sinclair, believes it was likely made by Chinese craftsmen in the Philippines and then exported to Spain via Mexico on a Manila galleon.
Other unique finds that will be exhibited in the museum include a gold pendant with the Cross of Santiago. A second gold pendant found features a cross of Saint James on a large Colombian emerald. The outer edge is framed by another 12 square emeralds, possibly symbolizing the 12 apostles.
“When we brought up the emerald and gold oval pendants, I literally couldn’t breathe for 30 seconds,” Allen says. “I feel a greater connection with everyday finds than with coins and jewelry, but these finds from Santiago connect the two worlds. The pendant fascinates me when I hold it and think about its history. .
Since Allen’s team includes experienced marine archaeologists like James Sinclair, they are learning more about history every day. And since his team also plotted more than 8,800 magnetometer targets in three search areas measuring about 55 square miles each, they only scratched the surface of the artifacts they might still find. The best news is that the position of each artifact is labeled and mapped when placed, so they also retrieve and preserve invaluable history.
“Rebuilding what remains of the Maravillas is a long process,” adds Sinclair. “The ship may have been wiped out by past salvages and hurricanes. But we’re sure there are more stories out there. Allen Exploration has just discovered its first solid silver ingot which weighs approximately 70 pounds. Above all, everything discovered is treated with the same respect and mapped in geo-referenced databases. Now we connect the dots, for the first time tracing how the Maravillas broke up in 1656 and became a scattered wreck.
And unlike past salvage projects that were purely commercial, Allen Exploration has a strict permit from the Bahamian government and is committed to retaining its entire collection for public display. Nothing is sold. In fact, quite the opposite. Allen also purchased a collection belonging to a former investor and a rare bronze Spanish navigational astrolabe found off Lucaya Beach which will also be on display.
“For a nation built from the ocean, it’s amazing how little is understood of the Bahamas’ maritime connections,” said Dr. Michael Pateman, director of the Bahamas Maritime Museum. “Few people know that the indigenous Lucayan people, for example, settled in the Bahamas 1,300 years ago. Or that the entire population, up to 60,000 people, was driven out by Spanish cannons, forced to dive for pearls off the coast of Venezuela, and killed in less than three decades. There was a dazzling Old World in the Bahamas long before European ships thought they had found a New World. The Lucayans, the slave trade, the pirates and the Maravillas are fundamental stories that we share in the museum. »
“It’s definitely a childhood dream to do what I’m doing now,” says Allen. “But Gigi and I started with our love of the Bahamas. We’ve been helping after the hurricanes and during the pandemic as well. Finding and preserving these artifacts is far more important than just Gigi and I. “We’ve been building our operation for years We have the right people doing it the right way, and we’re making some of the best archaeological data records ever.
And now that the Bahamas Maritime Museum is set to open in Freeport, Allen is poised to share these unique discoveries with the world.