Sunken Pirate Ship from Explorer Vasco da Gama’s Fleet Discovered

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Vasco da Gama’s uncle, Vicente Sodré, ignored advice from the locals about impending strong winds. His ship, which was part of five-vessel squadron, became unmoored and sank in a bay, on an island off the coast of present-day Oman. Credit: Esmeralda Shipwreck project

Marine archaeologists think they’ve discovered a lost Portuguese ship from explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet off the coast of present-day Oman, more than 500 years after it sank in a deadly storm.

A team led by David Mearns, of the U.K.-based Blue Water Recoveries, first located the shipwreck in 1998 using archives and historical documents as a guide. After recent underwater excavations and careful analysis of more than 2,800 artifacts, including cannonballsand rare coins, the researchers are now fairly certain they have found the nau Esmeralda, the doomed ship commanded by da Gama’s uncle.

Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India in 1498, becoming the first European to reach Asia by sea and ushering in an era of Portuguese imperialism. Da Gama secured a monopoly on the valuable spice trade, terrorizing coastal cities and vessels along the way. (In one infamous story, da Gama torched a pilgrim shipcarrying more than 300 Muslims—including women and children —returning from Mecca.) [See Photos of the 500-Year-Old Shipwreck]

During da Gama’s second voyage to India (1502-1503), his uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré were in charge of a five-ship squadron. They had specific instructions to provide military cover for friendly trading states on the west coast of India and to disrupt Arabic shipping along the route, Mearns told Live Science, but they disobeyed their orders and instead went to the Gulf of Aden, where they carried out acampaign of piracy.

After sacking and killing everyone on five Arab ships (and keeping much of the loot for themselves), the Sodrébrothers needed to make repairs. They took shelter in a bay at Al-Hallaniyah, the largest of the Khuriya Muriya Islands, located about 28 miles (45 kilometers) off the southern coast of Oman.

“They were friendly with the Arabs [on the island] and trading with them —maybe too friendly with their wives, it seems from the archives,” Mearns said.

The Portuguese ships were anchored in a bay that was protected on all sides—except the north. When the local fishermen knew there was a strong wind coming from the north, they told the Portuguese sailors to get on the other side of the island. But, believing their iron anchors to be strong enough to withstand the storm, the Sodré brothers didn’t heed the warnings. The wind came, and the ships’ moorings were torn away.

Brás Sodré’s ship, nau São Pedro, ran hard aground, but Vicente’s ship, nau Esmeralda, sank in deeper water, killing him and everyone else on board. [The Top 10 Intrepid Explorers]

Another captain from the squadron recounted the disaster in great detail in a letter to the Portuguese king, and the story has been retold in many histories.

“It was a very rich and well-told story, which is great for archaeology,” Mearns said. “You usually don’t have that luxury.”

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