Shipwrecks off Goa’s coastline that have been looted by plunderers and underwater pirates for long may escape further pillage thanks to a French offer to scientifically excavate and exploit them.

French ambassador Francois Richier, who was in Goa on Saturday, told that there could be many underwater riches off the Indian coast that could be unearthed with bilateral cooperation between India and France in the field of marine archaeology. The collaboration may well also help India learn more about its maritime heritage.

“What the plunderers generally search for is gold and silver,” Richier said. “If you look at it from an historical perspective, gold and silver are interesting, but you can find many other things. From the archaeological perspective, if you can find some kind of equipment, some types of artefacts... it is useful for shaping of scientific history [of the region and maritime trade].”

The French ambassador says he met the director of the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography and offered cooperation from French archaeologists and scientists in discovering and preserving shipwrecks off India’s coastline.

Lost on the way

Historical records show that between the years 1497 and 1612, over 800 ships sailed from Lisbon in Portugal for the India Peninsula. Twenty of these reportedly ran aground, 66 were shipwrecked, four were captured by rival navies, while six were torched mid-sea during maritime conflict.

The Sunchee reef, St George reef and the waters off Baga beach in Goa are all home to shipwrecks. One of these had a cargo of precious stones, according to the National Institute of Oceanography.

A research paper, titled Shipwreck Archaeology of Goa: Evidence of Maritime Contacts with Other Countries, that was co-authored by NIO marine archaeologists Sila Tripathi, AS Gaur and KH Vora lists some of the ships that ended up on the seafloor off Goa:
“In 1651, five Portuguese sailing ships namely the St. Helena, S. Joan, Evangelista and St. Thome set sail from Portugal for Goa, but only two ships reached the coast of Goa and they were also wrecked in a storm on March 10, 1651. A Portuguese Pataxo Santa Tereza de Jesus was ready to sail to Bassein and Chaul in Maharashtra, but wrecked in the sandbar off Goa on May 18, 1658. Some cargo was salvaged and the remains were robbed. There was a small bag of precious stones, royal money and other goods onboard the Manoel Dias (another Portuguese ship) that went down in the sea.”

In need of protection

The need to salvage and preserve these and other ships is imperative. Several of them have already been pillaged by rogue scuba divers for antique artefacts, and NIO’s scientists say many of them are missing brass bells and other artefacts.

In their numerous dives, the marine archaeologists have managed to salvage articles which the underwater pirates missed such as elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, anchors, handgun barrels, granite blocks, stone bricks, and Burmese pottery. But there are yet more that need protection.

Richier says that France could offer Indian archaeologists technological assistance in salvaging the shipwrecks. “The technique at the end, whatever the age of the wreckage, is roughly the same. It involves diving. The technology is aimed at taking away the sand, while keeping the integrity of the wreckage, which is a very complex technology. But we are sure that once it develops we will be extremely successful.”