En Bas Saline is the site of a very large classic Taíno town occupied between about AD 1200 and AD 1530. It is thought to have been the principal town of the cacique Guacanagarí, which is where Columbus established his tiny settlement of La Navidad in 1492, after the wreck of the Santa María.

En Bas Saline, Haiti
En Bas Saline, Haiti

En Bas Saline is located on the northeastern coast of Haiti about one kilometer from the village of Limonade Bord de Mer, and about 12 kilometers east of present day Cap Haitian. It is one of the largest Taíno village sites reported in Haiti, encompassing an area of some 95,000 square meters.

Today it is the setting for the Haitian village of En Bas Saline (population about 150) and is farmed by the Haitian residents.  The people of En Bas Saline have also been the principal archaeological technicians for the project over the years.

Since 1979, archaeological research at En Bas Saline has been oriented both to the search for Columbus’s fort of La Navidad, and to understanding the nearly 300-year long Taíno occupation of this important town.

Columbus and La Navidad

Columbus's route along the north coast of Haiti. From Samuel Eliot Morison, 1941. The route of Columbus along the north coast of Haiti and the site of La Navidad, Transactions of the Maerican Philosophical Soceity Vol. 31, part 4, pp. 239-285
Columbus’s route along the north coast of Haiti. From Samuel Eliot Morison, 1941. The route of Columbus along the north coast of Haiti and the site of La Navidad, Transactions of the Maerican Philosophical Soceity Vol. 31, part 4, pp. 239-285
16th century depiction of Christopher Columbus landing in America. Theodore de Bry, Reisen in Occidentalischen Indien (Frankfurt, ca. 1590-1630). Copper plate engraving. Courtesy of the University of Florida Smathers Library Special collections
16th century depiction of Christopher Columbus landing in America. Theodore de Bry, Reisen in Occidentalischen Indien (Frankfurt, ca. 1590-1630). Copper plate engraving. Courtesy of the University of Florida Smathers Library Special collections

On Christmas Eve of 1492, Christopher Columbus’s flagship, the Santa María, ran aground on a reef near En Bas Saline.  With the help of the Taínos from the nearby town of the cacique Guacanagarí, the Spaniards salvaged the cargo and timbers of the wrecked ship.  Guacanagarí was the principal chief of the province of Marien at the time of contact (today northern Haiti and northwestern Dominican Republic), and he offered his town as a refuge for the shipwrecked Spaniards giving them one or two of his largest houses. The loss of his vessel forced Columbus to leave 39 crew members behind in town while the Niña and Pinta returned to Spain.

He ordered them to make a tower and moat (possibly around the houses given to them by Guacanagarí) and to search for gold, and he left them with a promise to return for them the following year.  Columbus did return for his crew nine months later during his second, colonizing voyage, but found the fort burned and all of the men dead. Guacanagarí claimed that some had died, fighting with one another, and most had been killed when a rival Taíno cacique attacked Guacanagarí’s town and burned the European compound.

Although Columbus accepted Guacanagarí’s story, he chose to abandon the area as a site for his first intentional settlement, and sailed eastward to establish  the town of La Isabela near present day Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.

Artists rendering of Columbus meeting Guacanagarí. Courtesy of the Fundación García Arévalo, Santo Domingo
Artists rendering of Columbus meeting Guacanagarí. Courtesy of the Fundación García Arévalo, Santo Domingo

En Bas Saline is thought to be the site of Guacanagarí’s town both because of its singular size and prominence in the region, and also because its location conforms very closely to the accounts of Columbus’s wreck.

Excavations at En Bas Saline have located a very large burned structure on a mound near the center of the site where nearly all of the European artifacts (including a lead musket ball and Spanish pottery) and European animal bones (rat and pig) have been found.  Radiocarbon dates verify also that the structure was present in 1492, and this is the most likely candidate for La Navidad, and the brief Spanish occupation in 1493.

The Taíno town at En Bas Saline was occupied by the Taíno until about 1520. During that time, the Spanish town of Puerto Real was established in 1503, about two kilometers from the site of En Bas Saline.  There is no archaeological indication, however, that Europeans lived at En Bas Saline after La Navidad was abandoned by Columbus.

 

View artifacts from En Bas Saline