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Dr. Sila Tripati

Pirates of the Arabian

The quiet of the sea is broken by an ear-piercing shriek as the ship’s wooden planks grate angrily and then splinter, and crash against rock. A hurried rush of feet follows, salve as terrified marinheiros, Portuguese sailors, curse and slog desperately to salvage precious cargo aboard the sinking Caravela.

Brine slowly fills the hollowed wooden hull, as the sea swallows the large sailboat, inch by inch. As the last bit of the ship slowly submerges, the sailors departing in smaller boats turn around to look at their sinking vessel, one final time.

This could have been a scene out of the 1600s when the Manoel Dias – a wooden hulled sailing vessel which left Portugal with precious stones, a royal purse and other treasures – drowned off Goa’s coast. Or it could have been a stormy day in August 1594, when the S Cristovam was wrecked in a storm in the seas off Goa, littering its extravagant consignments on the sea bed.

Marine historians believe that the waters off Goa are dotted with decaying wrecks of more than a dozen ships dating back hundreds of years.

Today, the plunder continues unabated. Unlike the hot, bloody skirmishes on the water’s surface between the pirate and the pillaged, faceless scavengers in scuba suits are ransacking these sunken underwater relics, stealing brass bells, pipes, pistols and other precious antiques from the sea bed.

“There have been many instances where local divers have taken off (with) important artefacts and relics. They may not be of high importance for them, but for us every little clue is vital. In the recent past there were also instances of blasts at the site with dynamites,” said Dr. Sila Tripati, technical officer at the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography.

Moss-lined elephant tusks and hippo teeth, ancient cast iron guns, shards of stained porcelain pottery, terracotta building material and granite blocks are all that remain at a handful of shipwrecks that have been discovered off Goa, according to scientists at the NIO. These mysterious wrecks in the Arabian were not caused by storms alone.

Swift aerial dog-fights, gritty trench war and elaborate maritime battles during World War II left their scar in the seas off Goa in the 1940s, for instance. Three German and an Italian ship anchored in Goa’s Mormugao bay, transmitting secret messages to the Axis command about the movement of British vessels during the war, were sabotaged and burned by British Commandos, before eventually hitting the bottom.

In the 1700s, when European traders came sniffing for spices by the drove, Kanoji Angre, privateer and admiral of Maratha King Shivaji’s navy, led a small but swift fleet that snapped at the heels of British merchant ships like wild dogs chasing deer, plundering them for gold, gems, ivory and other precious cargo, before sinking them.

Angre’s fleet single-handedly brought British trade along the western coast to a standstill. “He used a large number of adequately equipped light, strong and fast craft which could surround the heavier vessels of the enemy and simultaneously attack them from all sides, thus overwhelming the crews of the enemy ships. Then they would board them and put them out of action by setting them on fire or by scuttling them,” Rear Admiral of the Indian Navy Satyindra Singh says in his book Blueprint to Bluewater: Indian Navy 1951-65.

He dubbed Angre the unchallenged master of the seas off the Konkan coastline, a narrow strip stretching from north-western Maharashtra all the way to Goa. More than a dozen vessels have been reported drowned off Goa since the 1500s, but the oceanography institute has actually stumbled upon six wrecks. Only one ship has a steel hull, with the rest made of wood, indicating they go way back in time, when ships were crafted solely out of wood.

Tripati says the six shipwrecks were found at the Sunchi Reef, St George’s Reef, Grande Island and Amee Shoals off Goa. Is there any chance of knowing if these vessels were plundered and sunk by Angre’s warriors?

We’ll never know. The vessels aren’t identifiable because in most cases the ships’ main brass bell, on which the name and details of the vessel were often inscribed, is missing – most likely another casualty of thieving divers.

But the harvest from one particular wreck off the Goa Governor’s House in Dona Paula, along the Sunchi reef, is whetting the oceanography institute’s appetite.

Among the items exciting the marine scientists are cast iron guns, iron shot, a barrel of a handgun, various types of Burmese ceramics, Chinese blue-on-white pottery shreds, glass bottle bases, elephant tusks and hippopotamus teeth.

‘Discovered’ by European adventurers in the 1500s, the western coast of India, especially Goa, became a thriving hub of marine trade. While Africa was a source of ivory, gold, precious metals, gems, corals and, of course, slaves for the Europeans, the western Indian coast presented ample opportunities to trade in spices, cotton, silk and other items.

Guns, according to Tripati, were used by sailors at the time to keep buccaneers as well as rival colonial powers at bay, especially if they had to guard precious treasures like elephant tusks from Africa, eight of which were found at a Goan wreck site recently.

During World War II, it wasn’t material treasure British commandos were after when they staged a particularly daring raid on German and Italian merchant vessels anchored in Goa’s Mormugao port.

It was radio transmitters beeping critical intelligence to Axis listening posts about the movement of British ships in the Arabian Sea. Historian Alfredo de Mello saw the three German ships and one Italian ship burning with his own eyes in 1943. He calls it a “tremendous spectacle.”

As a young medical student, de Mello rushed to the beach after his family received a phone call from the Portuguese governor breaking the news, according to an article he wrote in 1999. He and his father rushed to the scene aboard a row boat and ended up tending to wounded German soldiers.

“I was pressing my thumb on the groin of a German sailor, who had received a bullet on the artery, which was gushing like a fountain. Anyhow, it was useless, because he died …” de Mello wrote.

The burning of the ships off Goa was the subject of the 1980 Hollywood movie Sea Wolves starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven.

At the St. George reef near Vasco’s Grande Island, a shipwreck has a cargo of terra cotta building material. Floor tiles are inscribed ‘Basel Mission Tile Works 1865,’ a Christian mission which started its India operation in 1834 and had a tile factory in Mangalore.

At the Amee shoalsouth of Sunchi Reef and closer to the Mormugao bay, a steel-hulled stream ship lies submerged. According to Tripati, it’s the kind of ship which came into fashion in the late 1800s, knocking out the wooden sailing ships from the long-haul sailing business.

Tracing these vessels underwater is just one of many challenges. Polluted water and rising turbidity is making visibility under water increasingly difficult for the oceanography institute’s divers. “The River Zuari is the main supplier of sediments at both the near shore and offshore regions, thus making visibility near impossible,” Dr. Tripati explains.

But cloudy waters don’t stop scuba diving promoters from charging amateur divers Rs 4,000 per head for a sneak peak at Goa’s sunken treasures.

“Whenever we tell them that there are shipwrecks, they want us to take them there,” a scuba diver told Streets, requesting anonymity to avoid getting into trouble with authorities. The diver, too, had heard of the plunder of these wrecks, but insisted he wasn’t into pillaging and neither were the amateur divers he guides.

The diver said he has all the necessary permissions from state government bodies like the tourism department and the port authorities to conduct diving tours to these underwater wrecks. But he does not have permission from the Archaeological Survey of India, the country’s official custodian of heritage sites.

Rohini Ambekar, assistant archaeologist at the ASI, says her organization’s nod is a must, considering that wrecks have immense heritage value.

“To explore these shipwrecks or any archaeology sites, one needs permission from the Director General of Archaeology,” Rohini says. Rohini is clearly dedicated to preservation. But at the same time it’s clear government agencies in India are passing the buck over safe custody of the wrecks.

Between 1497 and 1612 alone, 806 ships sailed from Lisbon to India. Of these, 20 ships ran aground, 66 were shipwrecked, 4 were captured by an enemy and 6 burnt at sea during conflict.

What has been found is not even a fragment of the treasure which lies submerged within ancient hulls, where schools of fish and crustaceans frolic. The relics are out there, scattered on the seabed and reefs, just waiting.