It’s a tale of tax evasion, a shipwreck, and sunken treasure that can only be seen and heard at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
In 1725, a private merchant vessel, the 90-ton Nuestra Señora de Begoña, purportedly loaded with cocoa and a few pesos left Caracas, Venezuela, on its way to the Canary Islands off the African coast. The ship didn’t make it very far, though, finding itself caught in a severe storm and badly damaged.
The Begoña desperately sought shelter on the island of Hispaniola in what is now the Dominican Republic. After the crippled ship took on water for four days, the captain skillfully maneuvered it into a 12-foot-deep sandy cove and ran it aground, saving the lives of everyone on board. The cargo, however, was lost as the vessel broke up and sank.
That’s just the beginning of the story. As it turns out, the Begoña had much more than some cocoa and a few pesos aboard.
Researchers from the Dominican Republic, Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, the Peace Corps, and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis started recovering objects from the spillage of the Nuestra Señora de Begoña’s in March and continue to do so in an ongoing operation.
A Uniquely Close Look
Charles Beeker, underwater archaeologist and director of IU’s Office of Underwater Science, and archaeologist John Foster of the IU School of Anthropology are directing the recovery and conservation project. They, along with officials from the Dominican Republic, recently provided a handful of writers the unique opportunity to hear the story and view the artifacts at The Children’s Museum. As a father with a lifelong interest in history who frequently takes my kids to the museum, I jumped at the chance.
The objects that Beeker and Foster’s team have recovered so far in the spillage include cannon balls, musket shot, Taino pottery, wood and a false bottom from a treasure chest, and coins. Lots of coins.
Researchers haven’t even reached the hull of the ship yet, which they estimate is located about 325 feet from the current dive site.
Now many of these artifacts are on display in the conservation lab inside the National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit at the largest children’s museum in the world.
Nobody Likes Paying Taxes
Foster told us that his research in Seville, Spain, revealed that around 6,000 pesos and some cocoa were registered as being aboard the ship. However, the Begoña actually carried 10 mounted cannons, 200 cannonballs and cartridges, two pedreros, 30 shotguns, 30 powder bags, 138 kilograms of powder, and 12 cutlasses.
Immediately after the shipwreck, about 29,000 pesos were recovered, including six bags of coins–or talegas–located under the captain’s bed, plus nine chests with false bottoms.
Beeker and Foster’s team has found two more talegas, both of which are now at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. One talega is almost completely intact, while the other one is indeed complete.
The immediate investigation, combined with the recent findings among the wreckage, indicate that the true mission of the Nuestra Señora de Begoña was smuggling.
“The salvage work that went on at the time of the wreck revealed that it was carrying a huge amount of contraband,” said Foster during the presentation. “Silver and valuables that were being taken from the New World back to the Old World without paying the king’s tax.”
As a result of the attempted smuggling, Foster went on to say, the ship’s captain spent three years in prison and was banned from being a Spanish captain for 10 years.
The Children’s Museum’s One-of-a-Kind Exhibit
Many of the recovered pieces, including coins that were found just three weeks prior to the presentation, are currently going through a lengthy process of electrolytic reduction at the museum to clean them up, but visitors to The Children’s Museum can still easily see them behind a window. Some of the coins from the wreckage date back as far as 1652.
What Beeker finds most exciting is the discovery of the remains of a treasure chest, including wood. He could only recall two other locations–one in the Dominican Republic and another in the Florida Keys–where wooden treasure chests have been recovered from a shipwreck, making this piece an exceptionally rare find.
“I don’t know how many treasure chests you guys have seen, but this is my first one,” Beeker told us. “That’s pretty exciting.”
The researchers said that the Nuestra Señora de Begoña wreck site is located approximately 10 miles from the city of Santo Domingo and about 20 miles from where Captain Kidd’s pirate ship sank in 1699. One of the cannons from Kidd’s ship–the only pirate cannon that has ever been recovered from the Caribbean, according to Beeker–is also on display at The Children’s Museum right next to the Begoña’s artifacts, making it a one-of-a-kind exhibit.
An Education for the World
Francis Soto, technical director of the Dominican Republic’s Oficina Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural Subacuático, was on-hand and explained that having the artifacts on display is important to him because it helps to tell the story of his country’s culture and forefathers–a story that he wants to see passed on to future generations.
The Children’s Museum is equally as happy to host the exhibit.
“Thanks to our wonderful relationship with the Dominican Republic government and with Indiana University, we’re able to share the artifacts and be part of the conservation team that is helping to recover and conserve the great objects that will eventually go back to the Dominican Republic,” Dr. Jeffrey H. Patchen, president and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, explained to us. “But before they do, we’re able to share them with millions of children and their families.”
“This is not just for the Dominican Republic,” added Soto. “It’s for everyone in the world.”
For more photos of the Begoña’s artifacts, click here.
For more information about The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, click here.