The site of the Esmeralda. Pictures /Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture and Blue Water Recoveries
Standing atop the rugged peak of Al Hallaniyah Island, eyeing the blue-grey Arabian Sea as it lashed the rocky coast below, David Mearns tried to transport himself back 500 years.
The sky was dark with storm clouds, the sea a surging maelstrom. Two ships, heedlessly anchored on the exposed northern side of the island, were whipped about by the winds and waves, stretching their moorings to breaking point. Once adrift, the wooden vessels were driven shoreward and bashed against the rocks. One got close enough to the beach for its crew to escape before it broke apart. The other splintered and sank in deep water, dragging everyone on board to the bottom of the sea.
Mearns had spent half a year reading accounts of that disaster, which doomed part of a fleet led by the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
He’d internalised everything he could find about the weather, the vessels, the island, the perils of the Arabian Sea during the “Golden Age of Exploration” half a millennium ago.
And he knew that at least one unparalleled example of a ship from that time lay somewhere within his reach.
“Our team stood at the top of the island and … put themselves in the place of the Portuguese, where they would have anchored and where the storm would have dashed them along the coastline,” Mearns told National Geographic. But the initial search didn’t take much more time than the visualisation: “Then they snorkelled around and in 20 minutes started seeing cannonballs that were obviously from a European ship.”
That was in 1998. It would be another decade and a half before Mearns’s shipwreck salvage company, Blue Water Recoveries, returned to conduct a full excavation of the site in partnership with the Ministry of Heritage and Culture in Oman.
The wreck uncovered off the coast of Al Hallaniyah, Mearns announced this week, is almost certainly da Gama’s ship Esmeralda, which sank in 1503 with its captain and da Gama’s uncle, the swashbuckling, rapacious Vincente Sodre, on board.
A report on the find published in the journal Nautical Archaeology is still considered “interim” as many artefacts recovered are yet to be analysed, but, if Mearns’s conclusion is borne out, the Esmeralda will be the oldest ship from the Age of Exploration ever to be excavated.
“The armaments [from the site] are already providing us with information about the martial nature of these voyages and the site has the potential to tell us much more,” Dave Parham, a professor at Bournemouth University and the archaeological director of the expedition, said.
Among those armaments are a bronze ship’s bell dated 1498 – the earliest ship’s bell to be discovered, a copper alloy disc bearing the Portuguese royal coat of arms and, rarest of all, a tiny silver medallion known as “the ghost coin of Dom Manuel I”. The coin, minted by Portuguese King Dom Manuel in 1499, was an “indio”, specially made for trade with India. It’s a “ghost” because, until now, only one has ever been found.
The discovery of the second ghost coin hints at what the ill-fated Esmeralda was doing in the Arabian Sea in the first place. She’d been part of a massive armada led by da Gama in order to conduct trade – and in many cases, wage war – in India. The fleet followed the route famously pioneered by da Gama four years earlier: a circuitous, 38,625km voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and up Africa’s eastern coast.
That first successful voyage was a turning point in world history: the beginning of the ages of exploration, imperialism and globalisation, with all their change and brutality. And what happened on da Gama’s second voyage, including the demise of the Esmeralda, was a grim harbinger of the violent centuries to come.
The armada set out in 1502, the fourth such fleet to be sent by King Dom Manuel. Its predecessors hadn’t fared well so da Gama’s fleet was well-stocked with weaponry. He tried (not entirely successfully) to subdue unco-operative Indian kingdoms and attacked any other ships he encountered in the Indian Ocean, including one carrying Muslim pilgrims on their way back from Mecca.
When he headed back to Portugal in early 1503, da Gama left behind a squadron of five ships led by his two uncles – Vincente and Bras Sodre. The goal, according to the Nautical Archaeology report, was “to forcibly … dominate the spice trade.”
The Sodre brothers had their own ideas, though, and set out for the Gulf of Aden, which was full of lucrative opportunities for piracy. They spent the next several months capturing Arab ships, plundering their cargo and killing their crews.
By April, monsoon season had arrived, and one of the ships was in need of repairs, so the squadron retired to Al Hallaniyah for some rest and trade. The local fishermen warned the Portuguese that their choice of port – on the exposed windward side of the island – was a poor one, but the Europeans recklessly disregarded their advice.
Their haughtiness proved deadly: When the storm came, both vessels were dashed against the rocky shore. Vincente went down with his ship, and Bras died not long after of undetermined causes.