As It Happens

From coins to cannonballs, a shipwreck's incredible 500-year-old treasure

A shipwreck believed to be from the fleet of legendary explorer Vasco da Gama is telling the story of European exploration in the 16th century.
A shipwreck believed to be from fleet of legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama has been excavated off the coast of Oman. (AP)

A 16th century shipwreck, believed to be from the fleet of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and first discovered in 1998 off the coast of Oman is finally giving up its secrets.

"It's the earliest European shipwreck found in the Indian ocean," Dave Parham, who is the sites chief archaeologist, tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Al Hallaniyah island is shown off the coast of Oman. (CBC)

"It gives us an insight into the ships themselves that were making these early voyages of discovery."

An interim report on the site suggests the wreck is believed to be The Esmeralda, part of a 20 ship fleet lead by da Gama, whose mission was to establish trade routes with India, by force if necessary.

Da Gama had famously discovered a shipping route to India in 1498. The "Carreira da India" provided a way to the spices of the east without having to cross lands controlled by hostile traders and merchants.

A diver searches at the wreck site of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's ship, Esmeralda which sank in a storm in May 1503. (Blue Water Recoveries/AP)

The site itself has yielded around 3000 artifacts so far. Most of the items are armaments for the ship, but Parham says the most fascinating find is related to ceramics, "we've got stuff from the West African coast, material from Iraq, material from the Orient … and I think that's the real key to this project, it allows us a real window into the trade that was going on when the Europeans were first out there."

The amount of munitions found on board range from what would have been state-of-the-art personal armaments, to stone cannonballs that could have been used as siege weapons.

Parham says that gives clues to the real mission of da Gama's fleet, "this was a punitive expedition because the previous expedition hadn't worked out very well."

It is reported that da Gama's fleet engaged in piracy of Arab controlled ships.

"It wasn't a purely trading [mission] - it was more trading with violence added," says Parham.

The expedition ship is seen at the Ghubbat ar Rahib bay, the excavation area of wreck site of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's ship, Esmeralda (Blue Water Recoveries/AP)

The Esmeralda, commanded by da Gama's uncle, was one of five left behind to guard Portuguese factories after da Gama returned to Portugal. They anchored at  Al Hallaniyah islands when a storm hit, throwing two of the ships in to the rocks, sinking them both.

The relics left behind are in possession of the Oman National Museum and will eventually go on display.


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