300 years after disaster, French warships found off Venezuela

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The Independent US

Marine archaeologists have discovered one of the greatest disasters in naval history - a fleet of French warships lost for more than 300 years.

Marine archaeologists have discovered one of the greatest disasters in naval history - a fleet of French warships lost for more than 300 years.

Underwater investigations over the past two years have so far succeeded in uncovering 11 of 13 vessels lured to their death on treacherous coral reef 100 miles off the north coast of Venezuela.

The disaster - the subject of a BBC documentary tomorrow evening - destroyed French naval power in the Caribbean and allowed Britain to increase its influence in the area, a process which ultimately resulted in the incorporation of many of the region's islands into the British empire.

By removing at a stroke the only major naval force capable of controlling the area's pirates, the disaster also, quite literally, unleashed an epoch of virtually uncontrolled pirate power - the so-called golden age of piracy.

The vessels were wrecked in 1678. A fleet of 13 large French warships with a number of smaller pirate mercenary vessels employed by the French were preparing to attack the Dutch trading colony of Curacao when they were intercepted by three Dutch ships. The senior Dutch captain knew he could not out-fight the French fleet - so he set about luring the French onto a series of coral reefs 80 miles east of Curacao.

The French fell straight into the Dutch trap. Most of their warships were smashed to pieces on the reefs. At least 500 French seamen and soldiers were drowned and a further 600 survivors died of starvation and sunstroke after they were washed up on a tiny island near the reef.

The majority of the mercenary pirate vessels were among the only ships to escape because they were smaller and lighter and were able to sail safely over the treacherous coral.

The lost French fleet has been discovered because of the boyhood memories of President Kennedy's nephew, Maxwell, who remembered seeing cannon lying on the seabed when he swam there on family holidays as a teenager.

Over the past two years Maxwell Kennedy has joined forces with marine archaeologists from a Massachusetts-based marine archaeology organisation - the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center - to rediscover the cannons of his boyhood memory, and discover what vessel or vessels they were from.

After substantial research, the archaeological team began to suspect that they had located the remains of the lost French fleet which was known to have gone down in the area. Then colleagues found a little known map of the disaster site - and with its help the archaeologists have been able to locate 11 of the 13 wrecks.

So far dozens of cannon, large amounts of pottery and fragments of ship have been found in 30 feet of water.

Marine archaeologists have suggested to the Venezuelan government that the disaster site should be turned into an underwater national park, as the wrecks are imbedded in one of the world's most beautiful coral reefs. The site is currently guarded by the Venezuelan navy.