500-year old wreck discovered off the coast of Oman

Posted on: March 17, 2016 by

West Sussex-based marine consulting and operations company, Blue Water Recoveries, has announced the find of (probably) the Portuguese East Indiaman, the Esmeralda. Although not certain, it is thought to be very likely that the wreck, which lies off the coast of Oman, is the 500 year-old wreck of the vessel believed to have been commanded by legendary explorer Vasco da Gama’s maternal uncle, Vicente Sodré.

It is thought that the Esmeralda, part of de Gama’s Armada to India to disrupt trade between India and the Red Sea, sank during a violent storm near Al Hallaniyah Island in the Indian Ocean in May 1503, with all lives lost.

Blue Water Recoveries (Blue Water), which states on its website that it focuses its consulting work on the research, location and archaeologically sensitive recovery of historic shipwrecks, brokered a deal with the Oman Ministry of Heritage & Culture (MHC) in April 2013 under which Blue Water and the MHC would jointly conduct and manage the project.

This discovery has come in two stages. The first, in 1998, coincided with the 500 year anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India. A small reconnaissance team discovered the wreck site but logistical difficulties hampered further work. Blue Water divers reportedly found on the seabed more than 20 stone cannon balls (round shot), consistent with a European shipwreck of the early 16th century. During a second longer expedition (lasting two-months), the team found examples of lead-iron composite shot similar to those found on a number of 16th century wrecks, including the Mary Rose, sunk in 1545.

Archaeological excavations took place in 2013, 2014 and 2015 during which the entire wreck site was excavated and more than 2,700 individual artefacts were recovered. Amongst these items were the ship’s bell and a very rare silver coin known as an Indio of which only one other is reported to survive. The coins were probably minted in 1499 after da Gama’s first voyage to India which helps to date the wreck.

It is thought that this is the first government-led archaeological excavation of an ancient shipwreck in Omani waters.

Blue Water and MHC stress that this excavation, and the recovery of items, complies with the strict requirements of the UNESCO Convention on the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001 (“UCH”). It isn’t expressly stated anywhere, but this presumably refers to the rules which relate to activities which are directed at underwater cultural heritage which are set out in the Annex to the Convention.

The UCH requires consideration of preservation “in situ” as a first option but reports suggest that artefacts have been recovered from the Esmeralda. The reason for this has not been made public. It is thought that this wreck pre-dates the first Iberian wreck by about 30-50 years and, therefore, might yield fresh information about maritime activity at the turn of the 16th Century.

In addition to non-destructive techniques where artefacts are removed and there is thorough documentation of the process, under UCH rules Blue Water and the MHC would probably be required to share their learning and to commit to public dissemination of the results of their analysis. It is reported that the artefacts will be preserved in a collection owned by the MHC but the specific details are yet to be publicised.

As a footnote, neither the UK nor Oman are States Parties to the Convention, perhaps further evidence that UCH’s standards have become the international norm against which heritage salvage and recovery operations should be assessed.

By way of reflection, this is a further example of a public-private compact in relation to underwater heritage recovery. It isn’t clear whether either Blue Water or MHC will or has received any financial benefit from such a deal and, if so, what. The heritage community will want to pay close attention to their future plans for this wreck site and the artefacts.

Paul Stevenson is a barrister with Tanfield Chambers in London.