History buried in Goa’s seabed

Legends speculate that around 600 shipwrecks dot Goa’s seabed, though marine historians say an accurate estimate would be in double digits.  ———- March 1943.—— The chaos of World War–2 is in its fourth year even as a Goan summer gets under way.  A group of British war veterans embark on what appears to be their last shot at adventure.   They trade in their business


suits, take leave from their businesses, and hatch up a devious plan.  The objective —- to destroy four Axis ships anchored at Goa’s Marmagoa harbour. According to CNANS, Lisbon, several Portuguese ships capsized off the Indian coast between 1497 and 1612.  Most of them capsized in the waters off Goa due to storms, hidden reefs and sandbars.

Shipwrecks pique the interest of maritime archaeologists, divers and treasure hunters, alike.  They not only awaken romantic notions of adventure and courage, but also act as keepers of maritime history, trade and culture and have their own story to tell.  So, back to the foreboding night of March 1943.
The seemingly innocuous merchant vessels, the German ships EHRENFELS, DRACHENFELS & BRAUNFELS, and the Italian ship ANFORA, were transmitting critical information about British ships through coded radio transmitters to Axis “listening posts”.  The information was then relayed to German U-boats who then attacked the British ships.  To silence the coded messages, the motley group of middle-aged commandos of the Calcutta Light Horse Regiment used a hopper barge to assault the vessels.
suzy-s-wreckThey managed to get the job done and Goa got its dose of excitement as the four Axis ships blew up and sank into the sea.  A member of the raiding commandos wrote a book titled “Boarding Party : The Last Action of the Calcutta Light Horse”.  The burning of the 4 ships also inspired the 1980 Hollywood movie “Sea Wolves”, starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore and David Niven.
The 4 ships join the numerous shipwrecks that the sea swallowed.  But they were not the first.  Shivaji, the Maratha warrior had a small but swift naval force that wrecked havoc and plundered European merchant ships for gold, gems, ivory and other precious cargo.  The remains of those wooden ships probably lie scattered along the western coast swallowed by coral and silt.
The earliest reference to shipwrecks near Goa is from the 11th century which hints at the sinking of King Guhalladeva –1’s ship.   Archaeologists feel several shipwrecks belonging to the Kadamba Dynasty era are also hidden around Goa.
One of the oldest shipwrecks along the western coast, and definitely the oldest Portuguese wreck to be explored in India is settled off the SUNCHI reef, between Marmagoa and Cabo de Rama, in Goan waters.  Iron guns, the barrel of a handgun, granite blocks, ivory and hippopotamus teeth were recovered from the early 17th century Portuguese shipwreck.
But it isn’t always precious cargo that these ships carry.  Somewhere towards the late 1860s, a homeowner was despondent.  The hollow column-drums, drainage-pipes, vases, roof and floor tiles and chimney bricks, that he had ordered for his house, remain undelivered till today, lying at the bottom of the sea near St. George’s reef, to the south of Marmagoa Port.  Here in 15 metres of water rests the wreck of a 19th century cargo ship which was ferrying terracotta artefacts to Goa.  The tiles found on Goa shipwreckit are inscribed with “Basel Mission Tile Works 1865.”  The Basel Mission was a Christian mission, which had a tile factory in Mangaluru.  Recalling his underwater explorations, NIO marine archaeologist A. S. Gaur says, “If you go underwater even today after all the dives, you still feel the same excitement.”
A relatively more modern steel-hulled steam-engine shipwreck lies just off Goa at the AMEE SHOALS.  Marine archaeologists have found steam boilers, boiler-bricks, flanges and broken copper pipes scattered around the wreck, the first such wreck to be explored in the region.  The stamp o the flanges and the 3 Scotch boilers hints that the rusting wreck could be a British merchant ship dating to the 1880s.
More accessible today are the 2 wrecks that scuba divers visit near Grande Island.  SUZY’S WRECK is a 30m long metal wreck while the other is imaginatively called DAVY JONES LOCKER.  ——————— “I love exploring shipwrecks …….. the surreal experience, mysterious,” scuba diver and instructor Ajey Patil says, ” Suzy’s wreck is in a calm shallow bay and there are stories that it sank in a storm.”
While National Institute of Oceanography has done yeoman’s service in exploring and cataloguing the old shipwrecks, till date no records exist to explain how Suzy’s wreck and Davy Jones Locker capsized or if those are their real names at all.  Some call the Davy Jones Locker “SS RITA” but there is nothing to show for it.  It was published in the Journal of Nautical Archaeology.  Divers and old timers have created embellished stories to trade over a warm cup of something.  But it would be interesting to know the truth, because as they say TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION.
————– Newton.Sequeira@timesgroup.com.

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