Heart of Louisiana: The Mardi Gras shipwreck

Published: Oct. 24, 2012 at 12:57 AM CDT|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 8:44 PM CST
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A cannon and other remains from the shipwreck (Photo from the University of West Florida)
A cannon and other remains from the shipwreck (Photo from the University of West Florida)

Deepwater shipwrecks in our region are usually found by accident, part of the survey work that has to be done for offshore energy pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.

"And it was initially found as just a little amorphous blob on the seafloor that no one really could identify," says Dr. Jack Irion with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

But a remote-operated vehicle gave investigators a snapshot of history: the remains of a 200-year-old sailing ship.

Irion says, "It's in very deep water so the visibility is very good and the sedimentation rate is very low. So most of what we could see was actually just laying on the surface of the seafloor."

There are the ship's cannon, a stove, a large case of muskets and swords, and bottles and pieces of china -- all are surprisingly intact.

Irion says, "It's the kind of thing that as an archaeologist…that's what you go to school for is to have those kinds of moments."

They call it the Mardi Gras shipwreck because it's located next to the Mardi Gras pipeline.  Irion says, "The wreck itself lies in 4000 feet of water in roughly this general location."

In a delicate operation using an undersea robot, researchers carefully lifted more than 1,000 artifacts.  They recovered a large supply of ammunition, cannon balls, musket balls and flints, navigational instruments and the captain's telescope, a couple of sets of ceramic dishes, wine and beer bottles, even small glass sand clocks, similar to an hourglass.

These pieces indicate the ship sank during the early 1800's.  For the first time, a large collection of these artifacts is on display at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen.

Lauren Davis with the museum says, "I think people just enjoy hearing the story of the shipwreck and there are still so many mysteries regarding who was on the ship, what were they carrying, where they were going, how exactly it went down."

Researchers still can't positively identify the ship that these artifacts came from.  However, there are some strong clues that tie them to the War of 1812 and privateers.

Irion says, "We have a feeling that it was either a privateer or actually possibly a pirate."

There are documents that give more clues and a possible identity -- a schooner called the Rapid, purchased by a New Orleans hotel owner who then secured a letter of mark, a document that allows the Rapid to "cruise against the enemies of the United States".

And there's an account in the captain's log of the British warship HMS Herald, dated November 20, 1813.  The Herald chases the Rapid, which is upset in a squall. The British rescue the owner, master and crew. The Americans claimed they were taking flour from New Orleans to Havana -- there is no mention of the stash of weapons and ammunition that may have gone down with their ship.

Irion says, "It's a great story and it's sort of emblematic of what was going on in the Gulf.  Even if it's not the Rapid, it's a good excuse to tell that story. And if it's not the Rapid, it's something very similar… We just don't have the actual physical evidence that it is that exact ship."

These are the treasures of history, buried at sea for two centuries, that now bring to life the story of privateers and warships in the Gulf of Mexico.

You can see the Mardi Gras shipwreck exhibit through December 2 at the West Baton Rouge Parish Museum.