Over the years, we’ve conducted various research project on the southern Caribbean island of Bonaire, some 50 miles off the Venezuelan coast.
Now called ‘Divers Paradise’, Bonaire is home to extensive salt pans that have been in operation since the seventeenth century. A unique feature at the island’s southern salt pans is the presence of stone cabins used by enslaved and free laborers. In 2016, we conducted an extensive survey around the salt pan’s coastal structures in order to find out more about the lives of the people living and working here. Many artifacts were found and studied, and the workers’ cabins, salt pans, and other buildings were documented. A thorough survey was carried out at the salt pan’s anchorage area as well, whereby ballast mounds and numerous anchors of salt trading ships were documented. The archaeological survey was complemented by a thorough study of the documentary record. Travelers accounts, government records, maps, and historic photos were all used to complement the information gleaned from the archaeological remains in order to find out what life was like at the periphery of the Dutch colonial empire. Based on all this information, a reconstruction drawing was made of what the area most likely looked like during the mid-nineteenth century.
Bonaire’s topography is largely flat. As a result, numerous ships have wrecked on its ironclad shoreline over the centuries due to navigational errors. On the island’s northeastern tip, we documented an as of yet unidentified steel-hulled vessel. We created a 200 megapixel photomosaic that will serve as a basis for future study of the wreck site. Not all wrecks around Bonaire are a complete mystery though. One vessel, a tramp freighter called the Mairi Bahn, ran aground in 1912 during a storm. She sat on the reef in shallow water for several weeks before sinking into the abyss. The Shipwreck Survey has been studying the history of the Mairi Bahn for years, and has unearthed numerous important pieces of information regarding the ship and the events surrounding its wrecking. In the notary archives on the island, we discovered documents relating to the public sale of the ship and its contents. We also managed to locate several unknown photographs of the ship. These provided clues to another piece of the puzzle, the ship’s figurehead. With the help of a British figurehead expert, we managed to identify Bonaire’s famous figurehead the ‘Gouden Verrader’ as being the Mairi Bahn’s. This iconic piece of maritime history was almost certainly taken off the ship right before she sank.