Aug. 9, 2011 -- It was a pirate's life for Adm. Henry Morgan and now landlubbers can get a peek into the time during which the plundering privateer lived. Archaeologists have uncovered what they believe to be the Welshman's flagship.
An underwater archeological team consisting of divers from Texas State University, volunteers from the National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/University of North Carolina-Wilmington's Aquarius Reef Base set off for the Chagres River in Central Panama. Using a magnetometer to help them scour the ocean floor for iron remains, they spotted a slight piece of ship hull in the sand.
"It was like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Frederick "Fritz" Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist and dive training officer with the River Systems Institute/Aquarena Center at Texas State University.
He was not exaggerating. Only about 2 inches of the hull were sticking up but after further excavation, the team found a ship hull and several wooden chests 2 feet into the mud and clay, leading them to believe that they had found Morgan's ship, "Satisfaction," dating back to 1671. It is the first successful archeological excavation in that area.
While Hanselmann is fairly positive that he won't find any gold or jewels, for him and the team, the history is the biggest "booty" they could have hoped for.
"The treasure is the history," Hanselmann said. "Everything we do is not for profit."
Not that they needed the money. The company that was made famous using Morgan's image, Captain Morgan's Rum, put up a substantial amount of money to back the dig, Hanselmann said.
Tom Herbst, brand manager for Captain Morgan's Rum, said in a statement. "When the opportunity arose for us to help make this discovery mission possible, it was a natural fit for us to get involved," he said. "The artifacts uncovered during this mission will help bring Henry Morgan and his adventures to life in a way never thought possible."
Captain Morgan's Rum has long used the image of the swashbuckling pirate as a mascot for its brand. Movies such as Disney's "The Pirates of the Caribbean" have portrayed pirates as a bloodthirsty lot, hungry for loot, power and, of course, the occasional pint.
But researchers say Morgan did not entirely fit such a disparaging depiction.
Morgan was hired by the British government to protect its colonies in the Americas. He traversed the seas, taking down anything that might harm British interests. Commander of a huge fleet, Morgan had 36 ships, about 1,900 men and about 240 cannons in tow.
He was traveling inbound to the fort of Castillo de San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River to try and loosen Spain's monopoly in the Caribbean where he ran into rocky waters and sank Satisfaction along with four other ships. But his career didn't end there. He went on to become the lieutenant governor of Jamaica and died a natural death in 1688.
"He was probably the most successful to enjoy his ill-gotten gains," said Dominique Rissolo, executive director of the Waitt Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in La Jolla, Calif.
Rissolo was part of a 2010 team that uncovered six cannons in the same area that led to the discovery of the ship. The cannons, along with the most recent findings, will go to Panama's National Institute of Culture.
The search is not over for the team. Rissolo said that the excavations are part of an ongoing collaboration with Panama to ensure the preservation of Panama's culture and learn a little bit more about Morgan.
While popular depictions of a mercenary Morgan might not be completely correct, Rissolo said, one stereotype rings true.
"He died a rich and inebriated man," he said.