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Vasco da Gama's Lost Ship Esmeralda Opens New Window on Age of Discovery

Discovery of the Esmeralda could change how historians view trade and warfare during a critical period in the development of Western civilization.
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Marine archaeologists say they've found the earliest ship from Europe's Age of Discovery ever uncovered — the wreck of a vessel from Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's brutal second armada to India in 1502.

Experts called it a find of major importance that could change how historians view trade and warfare during a critical period in the development of Western civilization.

The ship is believed to be the Esmeralda, which sank in a storm off the Omani island of Al Hallaniyah in May 1503, researchers said in a paper published in this week's edition of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (PDF). By more than 50 years, it's the earliest ship ever recovered from the era when Portuguese explorers opened the Western Hemisphere and dominated the Indian subcontinent.

IMAGE: Excavation of the Esmeralda
Divers excavate the wreck site of Vasco da Gama's ship the Esmeralda.Blue Water Recoveries via AP

"If you consider that that pre-colonial period started on a major basis with Columbus, in 1492, this is just a decade after that," David Mearns, director of Blue Water Recoveries of Britain, which led the expedition, told the British newspaper The Guardian.

The wreckage itself was discovered in 1998, but excavation didn't begin until 2013, and since then, researchers have recovered more than 2,800 artifacts that helped establish that it's the Esmeralda, including the stunning discovery of an Indio silver coin commissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal for trade with India — a piece so rare that historians have dubbed it the "ghost coin."

Also recovered was the ship's bell — the oldest ship's bell ever found.

"The historical and archeological importance of the wreck site, based on future studies of the artefact assemblage, could be enormous," Blue Water and Oman's Ministry of Heritage & Culture said in a statement, shedding new light on "how maritime trade and warfare was conducted in the Indian Ocean at the turn of this vital century."

Gama's second armada to India in 1502-03 was a troubled expedition, resulting in the losses of several ships — including the Esmeralda — and the failure of its main objective, the surrender of the Hindu rulers of the Malabar Coast to Portuguese rule.

IMAGE: Ghubbat ar Rahib Bay
Ghubbat ar Rahib Bay, site of the wreck of Vasco da Gama's ship the Esmeralda in May 1503.Blue Water Recoveries via AP

In retribution, Gama — who's portrayed by some historians as a crude and violent man — attacked a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from Mecca, killing at least 300 of them, including women and children, according to historian Nigel Cliff's "The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama."

A trove of armaments was also discovered at the wreck site, and it's already revising how experts regard the extraordinarily violent nature of the Portuguese armada expeditions, researchers said.

"The bulk of the recovered artefacts were artillery and ordnance from the arsenal on board the ship," the researchers said. "These included lead, iron and stone shot of various calibres, a large number of bronze breech chambers and several ancient firearms.

"Together they provide tangible proof of the military objectives of this fleet as ordered by Dom Manuel and brutally carried out by Vasco da Gama and his two uncles Vicente and Brás Sodré."