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A Pipe From The Past: Key West Museum Captures Sound Not Heard In Four Centuries

archaeologist corey malcom holds the whistle from the Santa margarita, a spanish treasure ship
Nancy Klingener
Corey Malcom, director of archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, recently played the boatswain's whistle from the Santa Margarita for the first time.

Seven ships from the 1622 Spanish treasure fleet sank in a hurricane off the Keys. And it was their valuable cargo, like gold chains, silver bars and emeralds, that kept treasure hunters like Mel Fisher going for until they finally found it.

Now the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is taking a new look at that doomed voyage — and the people who were on it.

Corey Malcom recently produced and recorded a sound no one has heard for almost 400 years.

Corey Malcom's Recording Of The Boatswain's Whistle
Corey Malcom's Recording Of The Boatswain's Whistle
a close-up image of the whistle from the santa margarita that was recently played for the first time in four centuries

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He captured the piercing whistle from a boatswain's pipe, from the Santa Margarita. The boatswain used the pipe to convey commands that could be heard across the ship, over the noise of creaking rigging and flapping sails.

"He was ultimately in charge of how the the cargoes were loaded and made sure that everything was balanced out evenly. So the ship literally sailed on an even keel," Malcom said. "He was kind of the the nuts and bolts behind the ship moving forward effectively."

The pipe spent more than 350 years underwater off the Marquesas Keys, west of Key West. And it's spent the last couple decades on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.

The museum is working on a new project for the 400th anniversary of the sinking of seven ships in the fleet that Santa Margarita was part of. Instead of focusing on just the treasure the ships carried, they'll look at the lives of the people who were on board when they that sank in a hurricane, right after leaving Havana.

"I thought, 'Wow, it might be kind of neat to look at that whistle and explore the role of the boatswain," said Malcom, director of archaeology at the museum. "But also, 'What the heck does that whistle sound like?' We've had it on display forever and we've never really blown it."

Malcom says the whistle — which is solid gold and likely used for ceremonial purposes — is small and simple and has been overwhelmed by some of the museum's more valuable artifacts.

"It doesn't have the full glitz and glamor of, say, the emerald cross that we have on display," he said.

But the simple whistle — it's just a couple inches long — provides a different value to the museum and its visitors.

"We can look at pieces like this and tie them to people. We can say, 'OK this was a boatswain's whistle. Who was the boatswain on the ship?'"

From Spanish colonial records, they know the answer.

"The boatswain on the Margarita was a man named Cristobal Benitez. He was from SanLúcar, so he was from southwestern Spain. And here we have his whistle," Malcom said.

The recording is planned to become part of the new display so visitors will be able to play the whistle's sound when they see and read about the artifact.

"We always think of archaeology as things that you look at and there's sort of a static element to them," Malcolm said. "But this is the archaeology of sound, in a way. And this is a sound that has carried across the centuries. It sounds exactly as it would have in 1622."

Malcom said a new section on the museum's website, linking objects from the 1622 fleet and the people who owned them, should be up by the end of the year.

a close-up image of the whistle from the santa margarita that was recently played for the first time in four centuries
Nancy Klingener
The whistle is solid gold, and was likely used for ceremonial purposes.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.