The Esmeralda shipwreck is one of the earliest shipwrecks from the start of Portugal’s entry into the Arabia Sea.
There can have been few countries whose population exploded around the world as quickly or indeed violently as the Portuguese. From a small insignificant land on the edge of Europe, they swept into East Asia. Leading the charge in many respects was Vasco de Gama who crossed the Arabian Sea in 1498 with four small ships, landing into the Indian port of Calicut. In 1502 he also led the 4th Portuguese fleet into the region, this time with the clear intention to subjugate the coastal populations. This was largely to monopolise trade destined for Europe, rather than it flowing through Ottoman and Venetian ships, and additionally in retaliation for military defeats in the Arabian Sea during the previous years.
His fleet was of 20 ships, indicative of the value of the potential trade, as well as the numbers of ships lost during the previous annual sailings from Portugal that made larger numbers of ships essential to achieve success. Vasco de Gama returned to Portugal with the main fleet from this 1502 expedition. However, he commanded 5 ships to remain in the Arabian Sea near the coast of southern India, under the command of his uncle, vice-admiral Vicente Sodré, this fleet included a caravel the Esmeralda.
Despite this instruction, Vicente Sodré sailed north in search of lone ships to capture. From north-west Indian they crossed to the Gulf of Aden and the lack of success resulted in near mutinies. Coasting along southern Arabia in April 1503 a fierce storm was predicted while they were at the Al Hallaniyah Islands (then called Kuria Muria Islands ) off Dhofar. Four of the ships took local advice about the storm and anchored on the leeward side of the islands, Vicente Sodré ignored the warnings and when the storm did arrive his ship, the Esmeralda, was sunk with loss of life including Vicente Sodré’s who was drowned along with most of its crew.
In 1998 the wreck site was rediscovered by Blue Water Recoveries and Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture released information about what is now believed to be the earliest wreck ever found from Europe’s Age of Exploration during its initial conquest of the seas east of Africa.
Included in the finds have been the ship’s bell, pottery and breech chambers from canon, the canon themselves having been salvaged immediately after the wreck.
Amongst the more significant finds has been what is currently believed to be the oldest mariner’s astrolabe from as early as AD 1496, known as the ‘Sodré astrolabe’. Mariner’s Astrolabes were key to navigation at sea by early European explorers, especially the Portuguese.