Nearly three years after the discovery of the shipwreck Quedagh Merchant, abandoned by the scandalous 17th century pirate Captain William Kidd, the underwater site will be dedicated as a “Living Museum of the Sea” by Indiana University, IU researcher and archeologist Charles Beeker, and the government of the Dominican Republic.
The dedication as an official underwater museum will take place off the shore of Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic on May 23, the 310th anniversary of Kidd’s hanging in London for his ‘crimes of piracy.’
The dedication will note both underwater and above-ground interpretive plaques. The underwater plaques will help guide divers around the Kidd site as well as relics and rare corals at two other shipwreck sites.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded IU $200,000 to turn the Captain Kidd shipwreck site and two nearby existing underwater preserves into no-take, no-anchor “Living Museums of the Sea,” where cultural discoveries will protect precious corals and other threatened biodiversity in the surrounding reef systems, under the supervision and support of the Dominican Republic’s Oficina Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural Subacuatico (ONPCS). USAID has since extended its support by a year, increasing the funding award to $300,000.
The Underwater Science team from the IU School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (HPER), led by Beeker, has been working to preserve, analyze and document the Kidd shipwreck since its surprising discovery, which made headlines around the world. This unique museum, resting in less than 10 feet of water just 70 feet from shore, will give divers the opportunity to see the 17th century ship remains, including several anchors, along with dozens of cannons, which rest on the ocean’s floor and serve as home to coral and sea creatures. Above water, several more traditional museums will benefit from artifacts that are on loan to IU by the Dominican Republic government for the purpose of study and research.
“As this ongoing multidisciplinary research continues,” Beeker said, “interest in the project has grown and new partnerships are developing, including the Peace Corps assigning their volunteers to the project, and the Consorcio Dominicano de Competitividad Turistica promoting the project as a sustainable tourism destination.”
As the interest in eco-tourism and unique vacation destinations continues to grow, this Living Museum of the Sea is predicted to be a sought-after destination for those seeking underwater adventures combined with significant 17th century maritime history representative of the Golden Age of Piracy in the Caribbean.
Beeker said it was remarkable that the wreck had remained undiscovered all these years given its location, just 70 feet off the coast of Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic, and because it has been actively sought by treasure hunters.
“Since the site’s discovery, we have worked with government officials, Indiana University partners and museums to preserve this site, the artifacts contained there and to use it all for research and scientific study,” said Beeker, a pioneer in underwater museums and preserves. “We have diligently protected this site, and now we are able to share the importance of the Armenian-owned 1699 Quedagh Merchant (which was captured by Kidd off the west coast of India) with students at Indiana University as well as with the public at exhibits at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the British Museum of Docklands London.”
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis helped bring one of the most fascinating underwater mysteries in years to visitors in its new permanent exhibit, National Geographic Treasures of the Earth. Charles Beeker was authorized by Dominican Republic authorities to bring the only cannon recovered from the shipwreck to The Children’s Museum for five years of study and conservation. The Children’s Museum and Beeker received a $1 million grant from Eli Lilly & Company Foundation to support this project and to search for and recover artifacts from other historically significant ships that are believed to be in the Caribbean, with this including the ongoing search for the Lost Fleet of Christopher Columbus.
The Museum of London Docklands has an exhibition featuring the story of Captain Kidd. The museum will have a special event in coordination with the underwater museum dedication, honoring the 310th anniversary of Kidd’s execution.
Jeffrey H. Patchen, president and CEO of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, said the popular museum and IU have similar interests, to bring fascinating discoveries to the public.
“Our intent was to develop the most authentic experience possible — to bring real archaeological sites, real science, real artifacts and real experts to our visitors. These extraordinary experiences truly have the power to inspire and transform the lives of children through family learning,” he said. “We’re eager to explore future opportunities with IU’s team of experts in the search for other historically significant ships in the Caribbean.”
Other significant artifacts to be displayed at The Children’s Museum include Ming dynasty plates and statues, diamond and gold jewelry, gold & silver coins, cannonballs and other antiquities, which have been preserved for centuries in the Caribbean waters.
Historians differ on whether Kidd was actually a pirate or a privateer — someone who captured pirates. After his conviction of piracy and murder charges in a sensational London trial, he was left to hang over the River Thames for two years as a warning to other pirates.
Historians write that Kidd captured the Quedagh Merchant, loaded with valuable satins and silks, gold, silver and other East Indian merchandise, but left the ship in the Caribbean as he sailed to New York on a less conspicuous sloop to clear his name of the criminal charges.
Anthropologist Geoffrey Conrad, director of IU Bloomington’s Mathers Museum of World Cultures, said the men Kidd entrusted with his ship reportedly looted it, and then set it ablaze and adrift down the Rio Dulce. Conrad said the location of the wreckage and the formation and size of the canons, which had been used as ballast, are consistent with historical records of the ship. They also found pieces of several anchors under the cannons.
“All the evidence that we find underwater is consistent with what we know from historical documentation, which is extensive,” Conrad said. “Through rigorous archeological investigations, we have conclusively proven that this is the Captain Kidd shipwreck.”
The IU research in the Dominican Republic typically involves professors and graduate students from various IU Bloomington schools and departments, including the School of HPER, the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, and the departments of anthropology, biology, geological sciences and mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences.
“The archeological work being done by IU in the Dominican Republic affords us tremendous entree for wider areas of collaboration,” said School of HPER Interim Dean Mo R. Torabi.
Since the discovery, Beeker has met with and given presentations to research experts in London, Armenia and Washington, D.C., and the interest continues to spread because of the complex trading and exploration channels that existed in the 17th century.
For more than 20 years, Beeker and his students have conducted underwater research projects on submerged ships, cargo and other cultural and biological resources throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Many of his research projects have resulted in the establishment of state or federal underwater parks and preserves, and have led to a number of site nominations to the National Register of Historic Places.
Beeker, who has been conducting research in the Dominican Republic for nearly 20 years, was asked to examine the shipwreck in 2007 while on another research mission involving the search for Christopher Columbus’ lost ships. Beeker and Conrad have been exploring the era when the New and Old Worlds first met, focusing on the area of La Isabela Bay, the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement established by Columbus in 1494.
Text and Photo by Indiana University