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Seeking Captain Morgan: An Interview with Archeologist Frederick Hanselmann

I would like to welcome Mr. Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann to my website.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston

Project Director Fritz Hanselmann (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

Frederick “Fritz” Hanselmann is the Research Faculty and Chief Underwater Archaeologist and Dive Training Officer with the River Systems Institute and the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University. Having worked on underwater sites from a wide variety of time periods, his research ranges from historic shipwrecks around the world to submerged Paleo Indian and prehistoric deposits in springs and caverns. Mr. Hanselmann led the first-ever archaeological survey of the mouth of the Río Chagres in Panama in 2008 as the initial phase of the ongoing Río Chagres Maritime Cultural Landscape Study, which continued in 2010 with the excavation of cannons that could possibly be from the wrecks of Henry Morgan’s ships lost in 1671. He is also the director of the underwater archaeological research at Spring Lake in San Marcos, Texas.

Some of Mr. Hanselmann’s research with Indiana University was also featured in the National Geographic Expedition Week 2008 program “Shipwreck! Captain Kidd”, which is a documentary of a shipwreck that archaeological and historical records indicate to be Captain Kidd’s Quedagh Merchant, sunk off the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic in 1699.

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I was offered a chance to interview Mr. Fritz Hanselmann via telephone a few short weeks ago to discuss his search for the most famous Privateer in history, Admiral Sir Henry Morgan (aka Captain Morgan). Circumstance conspired against me such that a telephone interview was not possible, however, I was graciously allowed to conduct my interview via email. Most people associate Captain Morgan with the iconic logo on the rum bottle; but Hanselmann’s team of U.S. archaeologists, with the help of the Captain Morgan brand, are on a mission to find the fleet of ships the iconic real-life privateer lost in the Caribbean in 1671. The search began in earnest in September 2010, when the team discovered six iron cannons which might have possibly belonged to Sir Admiral Henry Morgan during their archaeological survey mouth of the Río Chagres off the coast of Panama. The team of archeologists continued their work this past summer with the discovery of a 17th century wooden shipwreck, which is potentially one of the five ships Captain Morgan lost at the mouth of the river. Among the five ships lost was Admiral Sir Henry Morgan’s flagship “Satisfaction”.

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1)    I would like to begin by commenting on what a wonderful occupation you have chosen. I think most people assume archeologists poke around on land rather than swim under the sea. How did the two passions of diving and archeology come together for you? What are the unique challenges that underwater archeology poses?

  • I fell in love with the water when I was young, I’ve been swimming since I was three. I loved to watch the reruns of Jacques Cousteau’s t.v. shows, and I also devoured all kinds of books on history, especially accounts of exploration, discovery, maritime history and naval stories. This translated into studying archaeology once I was in college, and obviously the aquatic world was of great interest. Underwater archaeology really provided the perfect combination of those two passions.

  • There are a number of challenges posed by underwater archaeology. First, unlike on land, we are limited in the amount of time we can spend on site due to the simple fact that we cannot breathe underwater. Factors related to the physics and physiology of diving figure into those limitations, such as depth, gas mix, gas supply, and time. The environment can also be a major challenge. Storms pop up and wreak havoc, as well as surge, currents, and large swells. So in addition to the topside challenges, the underwater environment can really get you. Bad visibility, and certain marine life can cause problems as well. Equipment issues are another challenge. Salt water does not mix well with electronics and machinery, and despite our best efforts to keep everything running, sometimes equipment failure occurs, and this can halt a project until repairs are made.

Shipwreck Mapping (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

2)   Since 2008 you have led the archeological team at the mouth of the Río Chagres in Panama. Were you expecting or hoping to find evidence of Sir Henry Morgan’s fleet of ships at the outset, or was this one of those happy accidents where an unrelated survey nets unexpected results?

  • We knew that Morgan lost ships in the area, and we were very hopeful that we could find anything at all connected to the man. However, the majority of the results are unexpected because we know about what is written not what is physically there. So each new discovery is exciting and sheds more light on the history of the Chagres River.

3)   I have followed this story since 2010 when six cannons which could be from Henry Morgan’s lost fleet were first discovered. There appears to be some discussion in archeological circles as to whether we can positively identify the cannons as belonging to the actual vessels belonging to Captain Morgan’s fleet. How confident are you that you have indeed found cannons belonging to Henry Morgan’s ships. How has the case for positive identification progressed? What key piece of information would clinch the case?

A 17th century cannon, found near the Lajas reef near Fort San Lorenzo, Colon. The cannons are in conservation at the Patronato Panama Viejo laboratory in Panama City, Panama. The cannon is thought to belong to Captain Henry Morgan’s lost fleet of 1671. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

  • We are very confident that the cannons belonged to Captain Morgan. Following their recovery from the seafloor, they have undergone conservation treatment in the laboratory at Patronato Panama Viejo. Throughout the process of their conservation, the coralline concretions are removed and the salts are extracted in order to stabilize the iron artifacts. After the deconcretion, we were able to discern a number of inscriptions on some of the guns. Working with artillery experts in London, we are currently analyzing the inscriptions which indicate that the guns are a mix of mid to late 17th century  English and French. Morgan’s flagship, the Satisfaction, was originally  a French vessel he commandeered, so these fit the date range and origin. While they aren’t the smoking gun, they definitely put us in the ballpark for figuring out where Morgan’s lost ships are located.

17th Century English Markings on Cannon (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

4)  During the last season of fieldwork, your team recovered a sword, some chests, some wooden barrels and multiple cargo seals. With respect to the search for Sir Admiral Henry Morgan’s lost fleet. What has been the most exciting discovery to date? The moment so to speak, where everyone said, “Wow, this is absolutely fantastic!”, and what was the moment like for you and your team?

  • In my mind, there are two discoveries to date that have been the most exciting. The first occurred in the conservation laboratory in Panamá Viejo. While deconcreting the guns, the conservators uncovered inscriptions on some of the cannons. Upon further analysis, those small inscriptions are what lend credible proof to the hypothesis that the cannons were thrown off of Morgan’s ships when they ran aground.

Shipwreck chests from a cargo hold buried in the sand! (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

The second occurred when digging into the sand. We found the first wooden chest of what turned out to be the cargo hold of a largely intact ship hull! In the first case, the correspondence was over e-mail, and I remember jumping out of my seat when the inscriptions came back to possibly being mid to late 17th century English. The second discovery is the kind of thing that makes your heart race. The more I uncovered the chest, the more excited I became. It was one of those moments when you think to yourself, “That can’t be right….a buried wooden chest!?!?” and it becomes even cooler when you come to the realization that it is a wooden chest buried in the sand.

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5)    Pirates (and I assume Privateers) are known in pop culture to consume copious amounts of rum. Based upon your knowledge of this era of naval history, is it possible that you might find an actual preserved bottle of rum, or a barrel that had contained rum from these ships at the bottom of the sea? Would such a find be significant? (I’ll be honest and say I think it would be really cool!)

  • Finding an actual bottle of preserved rum is definitely possible, but its preservation depends on the conditions of the site and the actual wrecking event itself. When we investigate a site, we look at what processes led to its current state. Varying environmental conditions have different effects on shipwreck, such as whether cargo is intact or scattered and broken. Fragile objects are usually the first to go. I’m with you though, it would be very cool!

Shipwreck Artifacts – Cargo Seals (Photo Credit: Jonathan Kingston)

6)   Diageo (the owner of the Captain Morgan’s Original Spiced Rum brand) has been involved with providing funding for the expedition (I believe) since 2011, shortly after when the cannons which might have belonged to Captain Morgan’s fleet were found. I believe that there is a potential for conflict of interest when marketing and science collide as the goals of each side of that particular coin are not necessarily the same. How important has Diageo’s involvement in the project been? How does one maintain a science first perspective, when there is such an obvious marketing goal behind the project?

  • Diageo came on board in March 2011 after we recovered the cannons and since that point this project has continued to grow and become a huge success. The folks at Diageo are awesome and we have a great relationship. Diageo is committed to telling the true story of the real Captain Henry Morgan and so are we. After all, it’s not every product that is named after a real person, let alone one who was so illustrious. Our partnership presents a very unique model for collaboration at a really cool intersection of pop culture and science. Both Diageo and our crew are committed to the authenticity of this project, and I think that’’s what makes this so extraordinary.

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7)   I assume that Diageo (through the Captain Morgan Spiced Rum Company) has seen to it that the expedition has had ample opportunity to sample Captain Morgan Rum as part of your “research”. If you were diving and spotted a full bottle of Captain Morgan Rum lying on the bottom of the ocean, which particular bottle would you hope it was and why? Would you sip it, or make a cocktail?

First, I would be extremely excited if I found a bottle of rum at the bottom of the ocean…– who wouldn’’t be?? Unfortunately, it has no’t happened for me yet on this project. An abandoned bottle of Captain Morgan Black Spiced Rum would be a nice find. The bottle is pretty cool, and it looks awesome enough to fit in properly in the hold of a sunken pirate ship. And since I’’ve got my team down there with me, I’d give them first dibs on a good rum punch that they could all sip on and enjoy together.

8)  Are we on the verge of any new announcements?

As an archaeologist there’s always the possibility of a new discovery, no matter the project. I hope this project is just the beginning of our adventure as we continue to unfold the real story of the legendary Captain Henry Morgan.

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I would like to thank Frederick Hanselmann for taking time out of his schedule to answer my questions. I wish him and his team continued success in their search for the lost fleet and the related artifacts of the legendary, Admiral, Sir Henry Morgan. Good Luck Sir!

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