How a few grains of pepper unlocked the Esmeralda mystery

After years of hunting for clues, researchers have finally found out what really happened to the Esmeralda, one of the most important ship losses endured by the Portuguese in their exploration of the Indian ocean.

Although the search dates back to the nineties, it was only in 2012 and subsequent years that the team conducted expeditions with financing from the Omani government. Photos courtesy Vasco Da Gama Shipwreck Website
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After years of hunting for clues, researchers have finally found out what really happened to the Esmeralda, one of the most important ship losses endured by the Portuguese in their exploration of the Indian ocean.

In the end, among all the cannonballs, weapons, ceramics, coins and even a ship’s bell recovered from the 500-year-old watery grave, it was a few humble grains of pepper, remarkably preserved inside a fused mass of rocks, sand and corroded metalwork, that told the most poignant story.

It was the lure of pepper and other valuable spices that in 1498 drove Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to open up the Carreira da India, a sea route from Europe around the bottom of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to southern India.

Pepper – and the vast wealth that could be made by trading it in Europe – was also the lure that in May 1503, led to the destruction of two of da Gama’s ships on a remote island off the coast of Oman.

The loss of the Esmeralda and the Saõ Pedro, documented in a contemporary account by an eyewitness, has long been known to historians, but for more than 500 years, the precise location of the wreck site remained a mystery.

Now, as a paper published last month in the journal Nautical Archaeology has revealed, that mystery has finally been solved, closing a vital "50-year gap in knowledge of many aspects of how the Portuguese conducted maritime trade and warfare in the Indian Ocean".

Although the “dangerous and often deadly journey” from Portugal to India claimed no fewer than 219 ships and the lives of countless men between 1498 and 1650, very few of the wrecks have ever been found.

The oldest, until now, dated from 1552.

The man behind the find was David Mearns, an American-born, UK-based marine scientist and maritime recovery expert.

In the late nineties, he began painstaking documentary detective work, which would lead to the conclusion that the final resting place of the Esmeralda and the Saõ Pedro was in a bay on the sparsely inhabited island of Al Hallaniyah, about 40 kilometres off the coast of Oman.

“The wreck of the Esmeralda was one of the most important losses in the Portuguese exploration of the Indian Ocean,” he says. “It was so early in time, as close as possible to the magical date of 1498, when Vasco da Gama found the sea route to India, and that was one of the things that drew us to it.”

Furthermore, “it predates anything else by up to 50 years, so we knew it would have real potential for exciting discoveries”.

With the permission of the Oman government, the initial reconnaissance of the site was carried out in 1998 by two men from Mearns’ UK-based company, Bluewater Recoveries.

Mearns and his colleagues had come up with two possible locations for the wreck site on Al Hallaniyah.

The first place they looked, more easily accessible, yielded nothing. Then they hitched a lift on a local’s boat and motored round to Ghubbat ar Rahib Bay.

At this point, says Mearns, it came down to “a question of seamanship”.

The two men, both experienced sailors, sat on a hill overlooking the bay, watching the wave patterns, trying to put themselves in the mind of the Portuguese who had lost their lives here 500 years earlier and figuring out where the Esmeralda might have been wrecked.

Agreeing on a likely spot, they snorkelled across the potential site “and in 20 minutes, just looking down from the surface, found the first cannonball”, says Mearns. “What a moment.”

In all, during a short search of rocky gullies on the shallow seabed near the shore, his two-man team found more than 20 stone shot of the type that would have been fired from Portuguese ships’ weapons of the time.

A larger team returned in November 1998 to carry out a more detailed survey, but the site would not be fully examined for another 15 years, partly because of “the logistical difficulty of supporting such a complex operation in this remote location”, but also because Mearns and Bluewater Recoveries had bigger fish to catch.

In 2001, for example, they famously located the wreck of the vast British battlecruiser HMS Hood, sunk in the North Atlantic by the German navy in 1941 with the loss of more than 1,400 lives.

It would not be until 2012 before Mearns was able to take up the challenge again, this time with the financial backing of Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture.

Three major expeditions to the site followed, in 2013, 2014 and last year, with Mearns leading a team, including Omani archaeologists.

In the remote spot, accessible only by sea, Mearns says he felt a connection to the men whose lives had ended there so violently 500 years earlier.

“When you are on Al Hallaniyah, you cannot help it, because that part of the island is so untouched and so remote it is exactly the way it was 500 years ago, when the Portuguese first saw it.”

There is no conclusive proof that the wreck is the Esmeralda – nothing of the ship’s timbers remains, partly because the Portuguese burnt the wreck after the storm abated and it was in pieces on the shore, probably to free up the valuable metal fittings.

Furthermore, says David Parham, a lecturer in marine archaeology at the UK’s Bournemouth University who joined the project as archaeological director in 2013, the shallow, storm-lashed bay is “a high-energy site”, in which organic material would be unlikely to survive.

What remains is only “very robust objects, like cannonballs, coins and pottery sherds”, but these have helped to build what amounts to overwhelming evidence that the site is the wreck of the Esmeralda.

“Archaeology is almost always about a balance of probabilities,” he says, “and what we have here is a significant balance.

“This is a European vessel from the first quarter of the 16th century with a direct Portuguese connection. Only a very small number of these had visited that part of the world from Europe by then, and it’s within an area that matches the historical record of the loss. It’s about as good as you get, really.”

History tells us that the Esmeralda should never have been near Al Hallaniyah and that the fate of the ship and its crew was a product of greed and arrogance.

Before returning to Lisbon in 1503, Vasco da Gama had ordered his uncles, Vicente and Brás Sodré, to remain behind with five ships, to protect Portugal’s new commercial interests on India’s southwest coast and deter or capture Arab vessels trading between the Red Sea and Kerala.

This was “trading with violence”, says David Parham.

“They were there to turn a profit and, with weapons that made them much superior to the local forces, to make a point.”

But, as the paper he co-authored recounts, Vicente Sodré “ignored these instructions and instead sailed to the Gulf of Aden, where his squadron captured and looted a number of Arab ships of their valuable cargoes”.

This was nothing short of “high-seas piracy”, in which Sodré was assisted by his brother, “who led brutal attacks that spared no lives as every ship was burnt after being plundered”.

Fate, however, aided and abetted by hubris, would ensure that both men would pay dearly.

In April 1503, seeking shelter from monsoon winds and needing to carry out repairs, Vicente Sodré took his small fleet to the Khuriya Muriya Islands, where they landed on Al Hallaniyah, the largest of the group.

Still only sparsely populated today, Al Hallaniyah was then home to a small community of Arab fishermen.

They were no threat to the Portuguese, who lived peacefully alongside them for several weeks, trading food and other provisions.

Sodré had anchored his ships on the northeast of the island, in the shelter of a large bay offering protection from southwesterly winds and blessed with a freshwater well – one of the clues in the historical accounts that led Mearns to the site.

But in May 1503 the fishermen warned them that a mighty wind would soon blow from the north, putting all the ships in the bay in danger. The two smallest vessels duly moved to the south of the island, but the three largest, “confident that their iron anchors were strong enough”, remained.

The winds, records the paper, “were sudden and furious and 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”.

Most of the men from the Saõ Pedro survived, scrambling along its toppled masts to safety on the shore.

Everyone on the Esmeralda, however, including Vicente Sodré, perished.

The account of the disaster, written for the Portuguese authorities, was penned the following year by Pêro de Ataíde, skipper of the third ship in the bay and the only one to have survived the storm.

By Ataíde’s account, Brás Sodre survived the wreck of the Saõ Pedro, but not for long.

He died soon after “of unknown causes, but not before he had two Arab pilots killed, including the best pilot in all of India left to him by his nephew da Gama, in misplaced revenge for the death of his brother”.

In less than a year Ataíde, wrecked off Mozambique on his way home to Lisbon, was also dead.

Today, as historians race to follow up on the many clues recorded in Mearns’ paper, the artefacts recovered from the scene of the wreck are undergoing close examination and conservation in Muscat, where eventually they are expected to go on display, probably in the recently completed national museum.

For Mearns, the greatest of the objects recovered are the smallest – the grains of pepper found by Omani conservationists painstakingly picking their way with tweezers through time-hardened masses of compacted material taken from the site.

“I think that’s terribly exciting,” he says.

“We didn’t expect it. You find a gold coin and everybody gets excited and it makes for great pictures, but those little pepper grains are just as significant because the pepper was what it was all about. It’s what drove the Portuguese there and then the English and the Dutch.”

On a lonely shore exactly 513 years ago next month, it was what ultimately killed a shipload of the first pioneers of the brutal era of European expansion and colonialism, heralds of an age of empires that would come to shape the modern world.