Pepper Wreck

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The Pepper wreck was found on the Tagus River mouth, Lisbon, Portugal, in 1993, during an archaeological survey promoted by the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, directed by Francisco Alves.

From 1996 to 1998 it was excavated by the Instituto Português de Arqueologia / Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática as part of the program of the Portuguese pavilion at the 1998 world exhibition EXPO'98.

In 1999 and 2000 the remains of its hull were excavated by the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática, with the support of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology / Texas A&M University.

Its excavation yielded a large collection of artifacts dated from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and lead to the tentative identification of this shipwreck as the nau Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, wrecked on September 15 1606 on its way back from Cochin, in India.

The study of its hull remains - which include a portion of the keel, eleven frames, and some of the planking - yielded interesting results and a first glance at these largely unknown ships: the Portuguese naus da India.

Very few Portuguese Indiamen have been found around the world. To be true, not that many have been lost to start with. From an estimated total of about 220 India naus lost in the India Route over a period of 150 years, the majority may have been beached and their cargoes recovered afterwards. Many may have been burned to salvage the expensive iron fastenings.

Only a few have been found, and all, with the exception of the Pepper Wreck, either looted or salvaged by treasure hunters. This makes the small portion of the Pepper Wreck hull a precious archaeological site.

Excavated between 1996 and 2000, this small portion of the ship's bottom was recorded as best as possible. A few timbers were raised and are deposited in tanks in the former Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática, in Lisbon. The remaining timbers were wrapped in textile and buried under several layers of sand bags.

These ships are as interesting as they are unknown to us. For this reason, the research on the Pepper Wreck has continued uninterrupted since 1996 and has originated a number of other projects, designed to address the questions that stemmed from a first 2001 reconstruction of the hull.

Several virtual models have been constructed to test many different sorts of questions, related to the plausibility of my reconstruction: Did it float? Did it stay upright? Did it sail? What speeds could it reach under different weather conditions? What angles could it withstand sailing upwind? How was the sail plan? How was the standing and running rigging of such a vessel? How strong were these hulls, considering the scarcity of timber and the small size of the components of the Pepper Wreck hull? How were these ships conceived? How were they built? What sort of control was possible over the final product in relation with the original idea? Did they carry 450 people? How? Where and how did they live? Where, when and how did they cook? Did they bring back from India 250 tons of peppercorns on average? Where and how? How were the cargo and victuals stored?

The list of questions is long. Moreover, many answers raise new questions, making this research a lot of fun in a kind of a fractal way.

This webpage is intended as an introduction to this topic. I believe that without a wide public interest we will never learn anything about the Portuguese Indiamen of the 16th and early 17th centuries.

Short Story of the Site

On September 14th 1606, after a nine months voyage from Cochin, India, and a three month stop in the Azores, the Portuguese East Indiaman Nossa Senhora dos Mártires arrived in sight of Lisbon. A heavy storm forced captain Manuel Barreto Rolim to drop anchor off Cascais, a small village a few miles from Lisbon. Here the nau Salvação, another returning Indiaman from the 1605 fleet, was already struggling with the southerly gale.

Dangerously dragging her anchors in the direction of the beach, the Salvação was too heavy to be towed against the wind by the galley that was sent to help. The next day, after seeing the nau Salvação run aground on the Cascais beach, Rolim decided to head for the mouth of the Tagus River hoping to escape the tempest in the calmer waters of the estuary. However, getting past the sandbars was not easy. Two large sandbanks narrowed the entrances, making the waters run dangerously fast in both the northern and the southern channel. Rolim headed for the northern canal, which by the early seventeenth century was already considered too narrow and shallow to lay anchor in, and too crooked for any galley to tow a large vessel out of. In the middle of the passage, the nau Mártires lost her headway and was dragged to a submerged rock. She sunk in front of the São Julião da Barra fortress in a matter of hours; soon afterwards she was broken up into such small pieces that witnesses commented it looked as if she had sunk long ago. Her main cargo of pepper that had been stored loose in small holds, spilled out upon wrecking, forming a black tide that extended for leagues along the coast and in the Tagus estuary. A large amount of pepper was saved and put to dry by the king's officers. The population also salvaged a notable quantity, as it was impossible for the soldiers to stop the locals who, despite the dreadful weather conditions, every night went to the sea in small craft to salvage what they could.

During the subsequent summers, the officers of king Felipe III of Spain - who was also king Felipe II of Portugal - may have salvaged a great part of the cargo from the shallow waters, and they certainly rescued cables, anchors and guns.

Just as many other wrecks that occurred at this dangerous channel, the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires was soon forgotten. The tsunami that followed the earthquake of 1755 probably rolled heavy rocks over its remains, and in 1966 a codfish trawler wrecked nearby the site covering a large area with other debris.

Stories of treasure troves around the fortress of São Julião da Barra were certainly transmitted through generations, and the spread of scuba diving from the early 1950s on heightened interest in the area. In the late 1970s several archaeological surveys were carried out by avocational archaeologists, but no governmental action was taken to protect the site. As a result the site was heavily looted by sports divers during the 1980s.

In 1993 the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia sponsored a survey of the site under the direction of Dr. Francisco Alves and identified two main areas of archaeological interest.

The second one - designated as SJB2 - consisted of the remains of a wooden hull with shards of Ming porcelain and Chinese earthenware dating from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries.

Based on the information from the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia's shipwreck archives, Nossa Senhora dos Mártires was identified as the most likely name for this wreck.

Among them were Aires de Saldanha, 17th viceroy in India (1600-1605), who died just before reaching the Azores on his return trip to his kingdom, Manuel Barreto Rolim who was trying to make a fortune in the India trade after being disinherited by his father in the sequence of an unwanted marriage, the cabin boy Cristóvão de Abreu, who survived this shipwreck and the wrecks of the naus Nossa Senhora da Oliveira in 1610, Nossa Senhora de Belém in 1635 and S. Bento in 1642, dying at sea in 1645, returning from India as boatswain of the nau S. Lourenço.

No less interesting is the story of Father Francisco Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who lost his life in this wreck coming from Japan to see the Pope on matters concerning the future of the whole Japanese Jesuit mission.

These and other stories have been published in the catalogue of the Portuguese pavilion at EXPO'98 under the title Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, The last voyage, Ed. by Simonetta Luz Afonso, Lisbon, Verbo, 1998.

Finally, in the summers of 1999 and 2000, the Instituto Português de Arqueologia through its Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática and the INA have sponsored two excavation seasons on this site, aiming at what is perhaps the most exciting part of this wreck: its hull remains.

A section of the bottom immediately before the midship frames was preserved, including a section of the keel, eleven frames, and some of the planking. Construction marks carved on the surfaces of the floor timbers allowed us to not only understand the method used by the shipwright to conceive the hull shape, but to reconstruct some of the hull dimensions with a good degree of certainty.

It was a large nau with a keel close to 27.72m in length (91 ft or 18 rumos, the unit then used in Portugal), and an overall length of about 38.25m (125 ft).

The hull structure had been built with cork oak (Quercus suber), and the small size of the trees that were used forced the shipwrights to assemble large structural pieces from several small timbers.

The outer planking was cut from umbrella pine (Pinus pinea), with strakes almost 4 ½ inches thick (11cm), and caulked with a string of lead, which was inserted between the planks during construction. Two thick layers of oakum were pressed into the seam, against the lead string, and were then protected from the outside with a strip of lead. The protective strip was nailed to the outer surface of the planks using short tacks with wide circular heads.

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