A Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1502–1503 Fleet of Vasco da Gama off Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman: an interim report

Two Portuguese naus from Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India, left behind to disrupt maritime trade between India and the Red Sea, were wrecked in May 1503 off the north-eastern coast of Al Hallaniyah Island, Oman. The ships, Esmeralda and São Pedro, had been commanded by da Gama’s maternal uncles, Vicente and Brás Sodré, respectively. A detailed study and scientific analysis of an artefact assemblage recovered during archaeological excavations conducted in Al Hallaniyah in 2013 and 2014 confirms the location of an early 16th-century Portuguese wreck-site, initially discovered in 1998. Esmeralda is proposed as the probable source of the remaining, un-salved wreckage.

In 1502, four years after his discovery of the sea route to India earned him the titles Dom and Admiral of the Indies in addition to other royal grants, Vasco da Gama was once again appointed Captain-Major by Dom Manuel I for a voyage to India. Following the disastrous outcome of Pedro Cabral’s earlier (1500–1501) command of 13 ships, of which only six made it to the Malabar coast, da Gama was apparently a late replacement for Cabral of this 4th Portuguese voyage, which was central to the prestige and military ambitions of Dom Manuel. The Portuguese king’s investment in the Indian Ocean had yet to turn a profit, nor had it resulted in finding large numbers of friendly Christians in India who could be allies against the Mamluks of Egypt who controlled the spice trade through the Red Sea. In fact, Cabral’s relations with the Zamorin of Calicut were decidedly unfriendly. Continuing da Gama’s policy of hostile trade, Cabral’s fleet first seized a Muslim ship, which in turn precipitated a retaliatory attack by the enraged Muslim merchants on the newly established Portuguese feitoria in Calicut. Fifty-four Portuguese, including the feitor Aires Correia, were killed in the ensuing battle. Cabral’s reply to the heavy loss of his men and goods was to capture still more Muslim ships and then to bombard Calicut with his heavy guns, killing as many as 500 (Subrahmanyam, 1997: 181).

In replacing Cabral, Dom Manuel opted for a fleet that was full of military intent and family members of da Gama. Of the 20 ships, the largest Carreira da India fleet to date, five were commanded by present, or soon to be relations of da Gama, including: the Sodré brothers, a cousin Estêvão da Gama, a brother-in-law Alvaro de Ataíde, and a future brother-in-law Lopo Mendes de Vasconcelos (Livro das Armadas da Índia, c.1497–1640). The main figure, however, other than da Gama himself, was Vicente Sodré, who was to assume the role of Captain-Major if anything happened to his nephew. Sodré, who was both a knight of the Order of Christ and of the royal household, was given a separate regimento by Dom Manuel to use his partially independent squadron of five ships to ‘make war against the ships of Meca’ along the coast of Malabar and the entrance to the Red Sea (Barros, 1552: 87; Subrahmanyam, 1997: 190). In leaving Sodré’s smaller squadron behind, Dom Manuel was looking to forcibly control and dominate the spice trade by the naval power of his technically superior ships armed with heavy guns.

After da Gama returned to Lisbon in early 1503 with the main part of the fleet, Sodré was instructed to patrol the waters off the south-west Indian coast. From this post he could protect the newly established Portuguese factories and their allies in Cochin and Cannanore from the inevitable Zamorin attacks, and still be able to capture Arab ships trading between the Red Sea and Kerala to fulfil the royal regimento. Sodré, however, 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 (Subrahmanyam, 1997: 229). In conducting this high-seas piracy, Sodré was abetted by his brother Brás in the São Pedro, who led brutal attacks that spared no lives as every ship was burnt after being plundered. According to Pêro d’Ataíde (1504), who was captain of the third nau, the Sodré brothers kept the lion’s share of the stolen cargoes (pepper, sugar, clothing, rice, and cloves), leading to dissension among the other commanders and crews.

In April of 1503, Sodré took his squadron to the Khuriya Muriya Islands off the south-eastern coast of Oman to shelter from the south-west monsoon and to repair the hull of one of the caravelas. They remained on the largest and only inhabited island (now known as Al Hallaniyah) for many weeks and enjoyed friendly relations with the indigenous Arab population, including bartering for food and provisions. In May the local fishermen 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. Confidant that their iron anchors were strong enough to hold their naus in place, the Sodré brothers, along with Pêro de Ataíde, kept their ships in the northern anchorage, while the smaller caravels moved to a safe location on the other side of the island.

When the 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. An illustration in Livro das Armadas (c.1568) dramatically captures the demise of the two naus (Fig. 1). While most men on the São Pedro survived by scrambling across the fallen mast and rigging on to land, it was reported that everyone from the Esmeralda, including the squadron commander Vicente Sodré, perished in the deeper waters of the bay. Although Brás initially survived the wrecking of his ship, he later died of unknown causes; but not before he had two Moorish 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 (Ataíde, 1504).

After burying their dead on the island, the surviving Portuguese spent six days salvaging as much as they could from the wrecks before setting fire to the hulls (Ataíde, 1504). Under the new command of Pêro de Ataíde, the three remaining ships sailed back to India where they met Francisco D’Albuquerque and, according to Ataíde, handed over 17 pieces of artillery they had salvaged from the wrecks. Ataíde later succumbed to illness and died in early 1504 after his ship wrecked near Mozambique during his return journey to Lisbon. Shortly before he died, however, Ataíde wrote a five-page personal letter to Dom Manuel relating the events described above. This letter, the original of which is held in the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo in Lisbon, represents the most complete first-hand account of what transpired with the Sodré patrol, and it is against this account that the Portuguese chronicles of Corrêa, Barros, Castanheda and Góis, were compared for the purpose of determining where to search for the wreck-site.

Although no record exists of the Portuguese contemplating additional salvage of the wrecks, a letter to Dom Francisco de Almeida, first Viceroy of India, dated 10 September 1508, tells how a sworn enemy of the Portuguese got to the site first and apparently recovered the guns that Ataíde and the surviving crews left behind (ANTT-CC, 1508). The guns, including 50 or 60 berços, two bombardas grossas and one falcaõ, where then in the hands of Malik Ayaz, who, as the governor of Diu and their main adversary in Gujarat (Pearson, 1976: 67), recently handed the Portuguese their first naval defeat in the Indian Ocean at the Battle of Chaul in March 1508. Undoubtedly the most upsetting fact for Almeida was that this valuable and strategically important collection of ordnance had been recovered from the Sodré wreck-site in Khuriya Muriya. Almeida was already aggrieved that his son Lourenço had been defeated and lost his life in the battle, but now he learned that the guns Malik Ayaz used to inflict this blow were Portuguese. No doubt this provided extra motivation for Almeida to take his revenge against Malik Ayaz and the Egyptian-Gujarati fleet, which he promptly did in early 1509 at the Battle of Diu (Pearson, 1976: 70).

The entire paper can be read here.

Additional information about the salvage operation can be found here:

Key individual artefacts that helped in identification of the wreck site as Vicente Sodré’s nau Esmeralda include:

  • an important copper-alloy disc marked with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and an esfera armilar (armillary sphere), which was the personal emblem of King Dom Manuel I.
  • a bronze bell with an inscription that suggests the date of the ship was 1498.
  • gold cruzado coins minted in Lisbon between 1495 and 1501.
  • an extraordinarily rare silver coin, called the Indio, that was commissioned by Dom Manuel in 1499 specifically for trade with India.  The extreme rarity of the Indio (there is only one other known example in the world) is such that it has legendary status as the ‘lost’ or ‘ghost’ coin of Dom Manuel.

The bulk of the recovered artefacts were artillery and ordnance from the arsenal on board the ship.  These included lead, iron and stone shot of various calibres, a large number of bronze breech chambers and several ancient firearms.  Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet as ordered by Dom Manuel and brutally carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré.


Obverse of Manuel Cruzado


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