The remnants of Vasco da Gama’s ships

The National Museum of Oman houses many of the priceless treasures of the Sultanate. A quick tour of its gargantuan halls will show you important artefacts not only from the earliest settlements some two million years ago but including those of the present day. Absent from its halls however are the artefacts recently discovered off the north-eastern coast of Al Hallaniyah Island, the very artefact believed to be that from the fleet of Vasco da Gama.

Researchers, after cross-checking records, had come to a conclusion that on May 1503, the ships, Esmeralda and São Pedro, commanded by Vasco da Gama’s maternal uncles, Vicente and Brás Sodré, respectively sunk at Ghubbat ar Rahib bay — a natural anchorage off the northeastern coast of Al Hallaniyah Island.
The two Portuguese naus were part of Da Gama’s second voyage to India, left behind to disrupt maritime trade between India and the Red Sea.
Piecing records together, researchers believed that the Portuguese enjoyed friendly relations with the inhabitants of Al Hallaniyah. As they noted on, the locals warned the Portuguese of “an impending dangerous wind from the north that would place their anchored ships at risk unless they moved to the leeward side of the island” but confident that their iron anchors can withstand the tempest, they kept the ships where they were.
“When the strong winds came, as the Arab fisherman had accurately predicted, they were sudden and furious and were accompanied by a powerful swell that tore the Sodré brothers’ ships from their moorings and drove them hard against the rocky shoreline smashing their wooden hulls and breaking their masts,” the researchers shared.

The road to discovery
Large stone anchors discovered in the Ghubbat ar Rahib bay indicated that it has been used in the past as an anchorage by ships visiting in this region. A detailed study and scientific analysis of an artefact assemblage recovered during archaeological excavations conducted in Al Hallaniyah in 2013 and 2014 confirmed the location of an early 16thcentury Portuguese wrecksite, initially discovered in 1998.
The wreck site was initially discovered by a BWR team in 1998 on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s epic discovery of the direct sea route to India, but full-scale archaeological survey and excavation by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture didn’t begin until 2013. Since then two more excavations have been conducted in 2014 and 2015, with more than 2,800 artefacts being recovered.
The process started in 1998, a two-man reconnaissance team, authorized by the Oman Government, visited the island in May 1998 to search for the wrecks using visual methods and handheld metal detectors.
Later that year, the site was revisited to conduct a more detailed reconnaissance survey of the bay, archaeological mapping of the gullies and stone shot, and trial excavations to determine the possibility of buried material and the likely depth of burial.
In May 2013, a two-week reconnaissance high-resolution geophysical survey of the entire Ghubbat ar Rahib anchorage was conducted, along with repeat mapping of the stone shot locations in the gullies to determine whether there was any disturbance of the site or significant shifting of the surface artefacts.
The following year, it was estimated that 950 cubic meters of sand and rock would have to be removed to excavate the site to bedrock, which necessitated the use of multiple airlifts driven by a large diesel engine air-compressor.

The treasures underwater
The finds recovered to date are indicative of the contents and components of a ship, absent the ship itself. No hull timbers or large ship structures have been found. This is not surprising given the ferocity of the storm that drove the ships aground and undoubtedly continued to break the hulls apart along with the contemporaneous salvage conducted by the surviving Portuguese, which included setting fire to the ships and the shallowness of the site, lacking cover to protect any remaining timbers from constant degradation in this high-energy and biologically active environment.
Some of the things found at and around the wreckage site that supported the theory of the origin of the shipwreck were ceramics from Iran, China and Africa, ordnance, stone and composite shot, a copper-alloy disc.
Giving a head start to finding the history of the ships were coins — seven scattered gold coins and a concretion of gold and silver coins found on the site. The gold coins are 12 Portuguese cruzados and a single Indian fanam.
Also found was the ship’s bell, —lodged beneath a boulder at a depth of 4.3 m. Found in 2013, the bell gave researchers a date to confirm their theory, 1498.
The wreck-site of the naus Esmeralda and São Pedro, commanded by Vicente and Brás Sodré, represented the perfect opportunity for nautical archaeology.
Evidence combined with careful examination and scientific analysis of key artefacts, pinpointing the exact location of the ship wrecks and the identity of Vicente Sodré’s Esmeralda, it has become a prominent source of the remaining cultural material from those sea voyaging days.
Thorough research is still being made of the remains and hopefully, a few of them will find their way into Oman’s National Museum where they can be fully enjoyed by lovers of history and archaeology.