The ocean covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, yet only one percent of the ocean floor has been explored so far. So every time humans explore the underwater environment, there’s no telling what might turn up.
In 1998, a team of divers had no idea what to expect when they went out into the ocean surrounding a remote island. During their exploration, however, the team found a groundbreaking piece of history that hadn’t been seen in over 500 years…
In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama made history when he became the first man to establish a western maritime route to India from Europe. During that expedition, Da Gama and his men sailed from Europe, around Africa, and into the Indian ocean where they reached their final destination in Calicut, which is now Kozhikode, India.
The India Route
The groundbreaking trade route later named the Carreira da India or India Route, allowed Europeans to access the spice markets controlled by Muslim rulers. The expedition, which occurred during Europe’s Age of Exploration, also lead to an age of global imperialism…
The Fourth Voyage
In 1502, Dom Manuel I, the King of Portugal who ruled from 1495 to 1521, sent Da Gama to lead Portugal’s fourth voyage from Lisbon to India with an armada of 20 ships and a crew of between 800 to 1800 men.
Trouble From the Start
According to historians, the expedition was troubled from the start when only 15 of the 20 ships were ready to set sail on the launch date. At the last minute, the Armada was reorganized into three groups. Da Gama would lead the first group of 10 ships, he uncle Vincente Sodré would lead the second group of five ships, and the last group of five ships would set sail on a later date and catch up to the group on the way…
However, that wasn’t the last of the issues the fleet experienced. Da Gama’s main goal in sailing all the way back to India was to force Hindu rulers of the Malabar Coast to surrender control to the Portuguese. Sadly, Da Gama failed this mission.
During the trip back to Portugal in February, 1503, after the failed expedition, Da Gama ordered his uncle, Vincente Sodré, and his five-ship squadron to stay behind to protect Portuguese factories on the southwest coast of India. However, Sodré didn’t follow orders…
Instead, Sodré, who was sailing on the ship Esmeralda, ordered his squadron to sail to the Gulf of Aden, which is situated between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, to seize and loot Arab ships. By May of 1503, the Esmeralda and the rest of the squadron was anchored at Al Hallaniyah, one of the Khuriya Muriya Islands off what is southern Oman today.
While anchored not far off the small island, local residents warned Sodré that their ships were not safe where they were since a big storm was coming. Sodré and his men ignored the warning, which they would soon come to regret.
On April 30, the dangerous storm came just as locals had warned. All of the ships were badly damaged and two ships, including the Esmeralda, actually sunk in deep waters during the storm. Sodré and all the crew members died as a result of the shipwreck and everyone thought the ship was lost for good.
Hundreds of years passed, yet no one ever found any trace of the sunken Portuguese ships. About 500 years later, however, Bluewater Recoveries Ltd., a shipwreck recovery company from England, made it their mission to find the historical ships.
A New Mission
The team from Bluewater Recoveries Ltd., which is lead by David Mearns, spent six months researching archives and any historical information about the shipwreck from survivors and eyewitnesses in the hopes of finding something that would point them in the right direction to the shipwreck location.
500 Years Later
After spending months scouring the archives they eventually zeroed in on several potential locations. In 1998, Mearns and his team traveled to the Khuriya Muriya Islands to begin their search. “Our team stood on top of the island and watched the waves come in,” Mearns said…
The Search Begins
According to Mearns, being on the island helped put the team, “in the place of the Portuguese, where they would have anchored and where the storm would dash them along the coastline.” Then the crew went down to the water where they believed the ships had been anchored.
A Good Sign
“Then they snorkeled around and in 20 minutes started seeing cannonballs that were obviously from a European ship,” Mearns said. The team believed they may have found one of the sunken ships from Da Gama’s fleet, however, they couldn’t be sure yet…
The Excavation Begins
It wasn’t until Blue Water Recoveries Ltd. returned to the island off the coast of Oman in 2013 with Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture that they began to properly excavate the site to try and figure out what they had found.
As divers started to explore and excavate the area, they quickly started uncovering countless artifacts from coins to ammunition and cannons. However, when divers found a “ghost coin,” an extremely rare Indio silver Portuguese coin minted specifically for trade with India, as well as cannonballs engraved with the initials of Vincente Sodré, they realized what they had actually discovered…
According to experts, the shipwreck found off the coast of the island was, in fact, the wreckage of the Esmeralda, which made the discovery the oldest shipwreck from Europe’s Age of Exploration. In addition to the rare ghost coin, which is one of two that have ever been found, the divers uncovered the ship’s bell making it the oldest ship bell ever found.
The Mysterious Disc
One of the most groundbreaking discoveries, however, was a mysterious disc that featured the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the personal emblem of Dom Manuel I. At first, experts weren’t sure what the copper-alloy disc was, but scans revealed that it was actually an astrolabe, a marine navigation tool used to measure the height of the sun. This one was the oldest astrolabe ever found…
A Piece of History
“It’s a great privilege to find something so rare, something so historically important, something that will be studied by the archaeological community and fills in a gap,” Mearns said about the astrolabe, which is estimated to have been made between 1495 and 1500. “It was like nothing else we had seen and I immediately knew it was something very important because you could see it had these two emblems on it.”
Unlocking the Past
“Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet as ordered by Dom Manuel I and brutally carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré,” Blue Water and Oman’s Ministry of Heritage & Culture said in a statement. “The historical and archeological importance of the wreck site, based on future studies of the artifact assemblage, could be enormous.”