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.

A storm at São Julião da Barra (Photo: Monica Belo, 1999).

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.

The India Route.

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 promontory of São Julião da Barra, marking the entrance of the Tagus River (Photo: IGC, 2002).

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. 


Aires de Saldanha, 17th viceroy in India.

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). 


View of the hull remains (Photo: Francisco Alves, CNANS, 1997).

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.