Shipwreck off Oman coast believed to be Vasco da Gama’s Esmeralda

(Picture courtesy: MoHC)

Muscat - 

Announcing an exciting news for lovers of history and archaeology, the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MoHC) has said that the wreckage of a ship from Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India has been discovered off Halaniyat Islands.

An inside view of the shipwreck (Picture courtesy: MoHC)

Announcing an exciting news for lovers of history and archaeology, the Ministry of Heritage and Culture (MoHC) has said that the wreckage of a ship from Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India has been discovered off Halaniyat Islands.

The wreckage – believed to be of the Esmeralda - was found and over 2,800 artefacts from it retrieved in cooperation with UK’s Blue Water Recoveries Ltd (BWR).

The Esmeralda was part of Vasco da Gama’s 1502-03 fleet to India and sank in a storm in May 1503 off Halaniyat Islands. This is the earliest ship ever from Europe’s Age of Discovery to be found and scientifically investigated by a team of archaeologists and experts, the ministry said.

Details of the wreck site, published on Tuesday in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, reveal that the ship, believed to be the Esmeralda, was commanded by Vicente Sodré, the maternal uncle of Vasco da Gama and a descendant of the nobleman Frederick Sudley of Gloucestshire, UK. A website with high-resolution images and video of the excavation was also launched (


The site of the wreck was initially discovered by a BWR team in 1998, on the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s epic discovery of the direct sea route to India, but full-scale archaeological survey and excavation by MoHC began only in 2013. Two more excavations were conducted in 2014 and 2015, with more than 2,800 artefacts being recovered.

The project has been jointly managed by MoHC and David L Mearns of BWR and has been carried out in strict compliance with the 2001 Unesco Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

A bulk of the items recovered include artillery and ordnance like lead, iron and stone shots of various calibres, bronze breech chambers and firearms. Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet as ordered by King Dom Manuel and carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré.

The historical and archeological importance of the wreckage could be enormous. Its artefacts are expected to give new insights into how maritime trade and warfare were conducted in the Indian Ocean at the turn of this vital century.

The ROP, Royal Navy of Oman, Royal Air Force of Oman and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs along with people of Halaniyat Islands were involved in the project. Independent international archaeologists, scientists, forensic experts also helped study the finds using cutting-edge technologies.

The institutions involved include Bournemouth University, the Smithsonian Institution; Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust; Univeridade de Nova Lisboa; WMG, University of Warwick; Oxford Isotrace Laboratory; GUtech, Oman; Banco de Portugal, Lisbon; Lisbon Geographical Society; LNEG, Lisbon; London Geochronology Centre; Durham University and the Mary Rose Trust, UK. These analyses were partly supported by grants from the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the Waitt Institute to project leader David L Mearns.

Hassan al Lawati, Advisor to the Minister of Heritage and Culture said, “This project is regarded as the first underwater archaeology to be conducted in Oman and the region. Therefore, the ministry has taken a proactive approach to ensure that it was carried out efficiently. This was done by involving experts and by working under international regulations such as Unesco's 2001 convention. This project provided great opportunity in term of capacity building to the national team in all related aspects of underwater heritage site studies.”


Lawati told Muscat Daily that the artefacts will be displayed in museums across Oman and become part of mobile exhibitions.

Mearns said, “This project differs from the majority of maritime archaeology projects in that we set out to specifically find the wreck site of the Sodré ships, using a survivor's and other historical accounts, because of their very early age and the potential they held for new discoveries. It is extremely gratifying therefore, that this strategy has paid off with such interesting revelations even though we are still at a relatively early stage in the study of the artefact assemblage.”

Archaeological director Dave Parham of Bournemouth University said, “It is fascinating to work on a site that is involved in such early European maritime connections with the Indies. The armaments that the site has produced are already providing us with information about the martial nature of these voyages and the site has the potential to tell us much more about the men and ships that undertook these adventures and the peoples that they encountered.”

Ibrahim al Busaidi, assistant professor in the Department of History, Sultan Qaboos University said, “The arrival of the Portuguese to India in 1498, led by Vasco da Gama is considered the beginning of a new era of communication between East and West at the beginning of modern times. This historical discovery documents this communication and confirms Oman’s global stature and importance in the midst of the international competition between the various forces in the beginning of modern times. The artefacts that were found among the wreckage of the sunken ship of captain Vicente Sodré (1503) will provide researchers and scholars in the field of geographic explorations and the studies related to the Indian Ocean a lot of historical information related to the nature of the Portuguese campaigns to the east and its goals, and the types of ships and weapons in addition to the economic aspects, such as currencies. Also, it lends a lot of historical facts and supports the documentations on the Portuguese presence in the Middle East.”

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