Tuesday, July 10, 2007

 

History stands still in the seabed off Sri Lanka

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DailyNews.com
By Janaka Perera
July 10, 2007




Shipwrecks: Most historians, educators and others now celebrating `Archaeological Week', seem to be exclusively preoccupied with the Sri Lanka's agro-based inland civilisation. But a deeper understanding of our society and the island's past is not possible without the knowledge of her maritime heritage.

While saga of the ill-fated Titanic has mesmerized the world for decades, at least 100 wrecked ships lie at the sea bottom all around Sri Lanka although no proper records of these ill-fated vessels have been kept. A large number of these are legacies from the colonial past.

They have to be retrieved scientifically without detriment to their archaeological status. Around the Bay of Galle alone there are over 20 shipwreck sites - some dating possibly to the 10th century. Forty years ago Sri Lanka's top scuba diver, underwater explorer and marine biologist, the late Rodney Jonklaas hit the headlines with his sensational discovery off Elephant Island, Trincomalee of what he described as a British warship well over 200 years old.

Among his other underwater finds were several large cannon and a small pilot-anchor. Earlier Jonklaas came across an ancient galleon off the Great Bases on Sri Lanka's South-East coast. In March 1999 a Sri Lankan team together with Australian and Dutch experts in maritime history and archaeology made the discoveries over eight years ago.

These findings were exhibited for the first time at the Maritime museum, Galle. Shipwrecks have been a fascinating subject for a variety of reasons - the study of archaeology and marine life and treasure hunts among them. A ship at the bottom of the sea is a time capsule for history stands still in a sunken vessel.

A part of it is Sri Lanka 's boat ethnology. According to Professor V. Vitharana, these traditional vessels were known as maha oru (big outrigger canoe) which reached the Maldive Islands, the southern ports of India and Malacca. The last of these boats were wrecked off Maldives in 1930 and abandoned.

Yathra Doni - a 100-year-old model of this type of vessel - was preserved in the Kumarakanda Buddhist Vihara, Dodanduwa until it was brought to the Maritime Museum, Galle.

The model was constructed by J. Kariyawasam, the last of a Sinhala family of sailors of Dodanduwa. It is a classic example of the largest type of outrigger craft that ancient Sri Lankan mariners used. Dodanduwa was apparently Sri Lanka's most outstanding yatra port.

Chinese Professor Hou We Ming, senior lecturer at Sabaragamuwa University in a radio discussion last February said that ships from Seih-lan (Sinhale or Land of the Lions) - the name by which ancient Sri Lanka was known in China - were among the largest foreign vessels that called over at Chinese ports, as recorded in Chinese chronicles.

The popularisation of scuba diving after World War II had its impact on Sri Lanka, when Sir Arthur Clarke and Mike Wilson (later Swami Siva Kalki) came here after their successful expedition on the Great Barrier Reef. They came here to write on the `Reefs of Taprobane' (Sri Lanka ). Here they were joined by Jonklass. Although spear-fishing and coral reef exploration were the scuba divers' primary aims, searching for wrecks soon became their past time in a sea strewn with ship wrecks.

It was Sir Arthur Clarke's book which first carried colour photographs of off-shore shipwrecks and the ruins of the `Temple of Thousand Columns' under the seas. The photos included that of the wrecked 50,000 ton Admiralty Floating Dock in the Trincomalee Harbour.

The dock was came to grief in 1944 when it capsized soon after the British warship Valiant was placed on it for repairs during World War II.

In 1964, Sir Arthur and Mike Wilson discovered a 17th century wreck of a Dutch vessel with a cargo of silver coins and bronze canon. The site was promptly designated a archaeological reserve by the authorities. The discovery of this genuine treasure ship marked the advent of Sri Lanka's maritime archaeology.

Shipwrecks entered the local movie scene in 1961 with the making of `Ranmuthu Duwa' (Islands of Gold and Pearls) Sri Lanka's first colour cinema production - starring Gamini Fonseka and Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya. Mike Wilson directed the film.

It featured the treasure ship and a documentary titled `Blue Water White Death.' The latter also showed the wreck of the British Aircraft Carrier Hermes, which was sunk off Sri Lanka's East Coast during World War II by Japanese carrier-borne bomber aircraft that attacked Trincomalee on April 9, 1942.

On full moon nights, the silhouette of the Hermes can be seen from the surface of the sea, according to fishermen. Among her sister ships which lie wrecked close by on the seabed is the Australian destroyer Vampire.

Part of the giant hulk of S.S. Sagaing, another victim of the Japanese air raid can still be seen in the Trincomalee Harbour. She had to be beached following the attack, which her decks ablaze. She was later converted to a jetty for harbour craft and smaller vessels.

Ten ship wrecks were located off Galle between March 1 and March 18, 1992. Five of these were of iron, while two were wooden. Earlier, on March 15, a large bronze bell bearing the inscription `Amor Vincit Omnia' dated 1625, was recovered. Later investigations revealed that it was from the wreck of the VOC (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie) - the Dutch East India Company - ship Hercules. Gale force winds wrecked the vessel in the Bay of Galle on May 22, 1661 .

The joint Sri Lanka-Australia-Netherlands Archaeological Research Programme is centered in the Galle Harbour which has been the subject of underwater archaeological survey since 1992.

Galle was the second most important harbour of the VOC in Asia. Entrance to the bay was dangerous because of the many submerged reefs and rocks. Of the six VOC ships known to be sunk in or near the harbour, three were wrecked during the vessel's arrival or departure; two were sunk within the harbour and one was wrecked outside the bay while waiting for the pilot to bring her in. The wrecking of these ships is well documented. There is little doubt that given the opportunity, local divers and fishermen would pillage the ship wreck sites.

Divers have been stripping everything of commercial value they could lay their hands on. They saw off and sell lengths of heavy ships' chains and have even sawn off ships' propellers.

In fact some years back vandals robbed parts of the Hermes - including a propeller. In Galle a local diver had retrieved a ship's bell which he had sold to an antique dealer for Rs.900. The latter in turn had sold it to a foreign tourist for Rs. 30,000.

We have to keep in mind that a powerful global commercial-financial combine is hovering over ship wrecks. Salvaging them has become a game played for very high stakes. A foreign company once tried to obtain rights from the Sri Lankan Government to salvage wrecks off the Bases Reef (Southern Coast).

It was from these wrecks that Sir Arthur removed 115 lb of silver in 1961. He donated part of the haul to the Smithsonian Institute. In the early 1980s a British couple that posed off as tourists, was caught trying to smuggle out two bronze cannons they had illegally removed from the wreck of the `L' Orient' in Trincomalee Bay.

Sri Lanka has to gear itself to monitor, evaluate, study and safeguard this wealth of archaeological material.


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