When Ilha do Fogo was purchased almost a decade ago, the motivation to build a boutique resort quickly went out of the window, and instead, a marine conservation action plan was put in place. Its main goal? To protect the endangered and critically endangered turtles visiting and nesting on the island. From then, the conservation efforts have evolved into a variety of community projects and a portfolio of eco retreats worldwide that fund the endeavors.
We have now visited the island dozens of times over the past decade. What has become more and more apparent, is that it truly is a unique and remarkable place. Not only are charismatic turtles in need of our safeguarding efforts, but the extraordinary ecosystem that has evolved there over the years must be preserved, alongside the uncommonly pristine 150kms of coral reefs and seagrasses, and marine life that lives within these systems.
And now, through our recent investigations, we have discovered another monumental reason to protect this island and the underwater habitat that surrounds it… shipwrecks.
Connecting the West and the Orient
Ilha do Fogo can be found 30kms offshore in the Primeiras e Segundas Archipelago, an area in which there have been some incredibly interesting shipwrecks and artefacts found. This is owing to the fact that it is located on the Portuguese trading route that was regularly in use between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries.
The islands here provided an important stopover and rest point for many ships, including Vasco de Gama’s famous fleets.
Past archaeological expeditions
An expedition conducted at our island by maritime archaeologists in 2003, and on Ilha Silva, an uninhabited island a mere 7kms from Ilha do Fogo, was telling.
The team used a magnetometer and a strong magnetic anomaly was picked up on the northeast side of our island. Another was detected on the north side of the island, which seemed to be from modern debris. Sadly, the team did not have the resources to explore further at the time, so they never found the wreckage that was causing the magnetic anomaly in the northeast, however, this just means that it’s yet to be discovered.
What we do know is that there is a report of a ship that went down at Ilha do Fogo on August 25th, 1644… almost 400 years ago.
Buried secrets & untold treasures
The ship was named Santo António and its captain was Amador Lousado. There is a strong possibility that this is the wreck that was detected on the magnetometer.
Not much is known about the cargo carried by this ship, and the untold treasures make it all the more interesting. Along the Mozambique Channel, there have been some incredible finds, with many dating back to the 16th century.
The Marine Museum on Ilha de Moçambique showcases a Ming porcelain collection from the Jianjing period, excavated from the wreck site of the Espadarte (1558). The wreck of Nossa Senhora do Socorro, a ship that went down in a storm in 1858, now boasts being one of the largest wood hull structures ever found of one of the naus of the Spice Trade route.
There have also been a number of coins recovered from the fleet of Francisco da Gama, Vasco da Gama’s great-grandson. Over the years, dozens of kilograms of gold have been discovered, and there are rumours of rough diamonds that were aboard one of the wrecks, yet to be found.
If our hidden wreck is, indeed, the 1644 Santo António, its treasures could be significant.
Visible wreck site
We regularly visit the nearby Ilha Silva to ensure no poaching activity is being carried out. At Ilha Silva, the wreck discovery was shallower and the archaeologists managed to recover some items from the coral reefs and gullies, from the Dutch ship Bredenhof. The ship was a VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), which sank on the 6th of June 1753 when sailing from Zeeland to Bengal via Ceylon.
Some of the interesting finds from the wreck include cannons, copper coins, lead ingots, and anchors. The coins were partially exposed and arranged in rows, inside a container, which bore the inscription “VOC 1752”.
The Bredenhof’s undiscovered silver
When the Bredenhof sailed into treacherous counter currents and wrecked on Silva’s reef, Captain Jan Nielsen abandoned ship and transported 5,000 golden ducats to shore with him on a raft. There are a number of silver bars that were reportedly part of the cargo, that have not been discovered. The captain threw the silver bars overboard, at an unknown location, to avoid plundering by the crew.
An excavation in 1986, by a South African company registered in the Cayman Islands, removed hundreds of silver ingots and thousands of copper coins from the wreck site and sold them in an auction held at Christie’s Amsterdam.
There are at least 40 known wreck sites between Ilha do Fogo and just North of Ilha de Moçambique.
Another exciting discovery was at Moma Island, 80kms north of our island. The find included gold and silver coins. a bronze cannon, five anchors, and 18 iron cannons from the ship N. Sa. Da Guia, which sank in 1721.
Most of the shipwreck discoveries in the channel have been close to Ilha de Moçambique, 300kms from Ilha do Fogo. The reason for this is that the area was subjected to extensive disturbance by commercially-oriented salvage programs. Many of the buried treasures were excavated and sold during this time.
Today, shipwreck artefacts discovered in Mozambique are illegal to recover, as they are protected from scavengers under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Convention prevents the commercial exploitation, looting, and trafficking of underwater cultural property.
Largely due to a lack of funding, there has not been much research carried out beyond the area around Ilha de Moçambique. However, since Ilha do Fogo is located on Vasco da Gama’s famous trading route, dating back to 1497, and the Mozambique Channel was used as a trade route from the 11th century by the Omani Arab and Persian traders, there are highly likely to be many more shipwrecks to be discovered.
It only ended as a trade route at the end of the 19th century with the abolition of the slave trade and was since used as a supply route for the British until around 1960.
On low tide, between Ilha do Fogo and Ilha Silva, you can clearly see the remains of a modern steel wreck, of unknown origin.
We will soon be bringing a magnetometer to our island, to enable us to further investigate the sites around our reefs. We anticipate finding some exciting treasures, which, of course, we will forever shield from scavengers.
What will you discover?
Book a SCUBA expedition to our island to be one of the first to explore it’s untouched reefs.
Inventory of Marine Archaeological sites in the Province of Nampula, Mozambique 2014 – M.Sc. Alejandro Mirabal
Guinote, P., Frutuoso, E., and Lopes, A., Naufragios e Outras Perdas da Carreira da India, Lisboa: Ed. Grupo de Trabalho do Ministerio da Educacao para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos, 1998.
Maritime and Shipwreck Archaeology in the Western Indian Ocean and Southern Red Sea: An Overview of Past and Current Research – Paul J. Lane
Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Initiatives in Tanzania and Mozambique – Bill Jeffery & Robert Parthesius
The Slave Wrecks Project : Iziko Museums of South Africa
Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries, Volume II, Outward-bound voyages from the Netherlands to Asia and the Cape (1595-1794) – Martinus Nijhoff
Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries, Volume III, Homeward-bound voyages from Asia and the Cape to the Netherlands (1597-1795) – Martinus Nijhoff
Bruijn, J.R., Gaastra, F.S., Schöffer, I. Dutch-Asiatic Shipping In The 17th and 18th Centuries (3 Vols). The Hague, 1979, 1987