Some shipwrecks in the Maldives are underwater marvels; others are devastating tales of sailors, silver, and secrets.
There are over three million shipwrecks worldwide, but less than 1% of these wrecks have been explored, according to Global Foundation of Ocean Exploration. The oldest shipwreck in the world sank 5,000 years ago, and in the Indian Ocean 2,000 years ago.
In the Maldives, an island nation renowned for its underwater beauty, many popular shipwrecks were deliberately sunk to attract divers and snorkelers, such as the Fesdu Wreck in Ari Atoll and Kuda Giri in South Male’ Atoll. However, in this series, we dive into stories of those unfortunate ships that were taken by the Maldivian sea for itself.
In 1658, the Persian Merchant departed from England towards Bengal and was wrecked in Haa Dhaalu Atoll. The eight chests of silver and gold from West Africa drowned with many sailors. There were 50 survivors, who were rescued and taken care of by the islanders for a month before they were given a boat to sail to Sri Lanka in exchange of a gold chain and 100 dollars.
One of the survivors, mariner captain Roger Middleton wrote an account of the experience to his family: “Being without food, we ranged about the island. We found a well of water, of which we drank like pigeons, lifting head and hearts for so great a mercy. Thus drinking water, by good providence we found coconut trees, which is both food and raiment, so we went by the sea side and found little shell fish and the like, but wanting fire wee took sticks and rubbed them together until they kindled, thus we lived here ten or twelve days, not knowing whether it was better for us to be seen by the neighbouring islanders, for the ancient seamen said they would cut our throats. At last, there arrived three of their boats full of men, which we dreaded but could not resist.”
With this shipwreck, Haa Dhaalu earned a reputation as a graveyard for vessels. The Hayston was a cargo carrying wine, spices, metals, and glass from Mauritius to Calcutta in 1819. Bad weather caused the ship to strike the reef of the atoll. In 15 minutes, there was seven feet of water in the hold. Some sailors left on a raft to seek help from a nearby island but never returned. A long boat taken out from the ship got damaged on the reef and went adrift with six passengers. A barge got capsized and split on the reef.
A week later after several attempts, sailors left on a small dinghy and were discovered by local fishermen. Tons of spices were salvaged and distributed. The survivors were rescued and taken to Male’.
Wreck of Corbin
The Corbin was a French ship of 400 tons carrying a cargo of silver, which set sail from France in 1601 in search of trade with the east. Two months since its departure, the ship got wrecked on the reef of Baa Atoll. However, even their journey earlier was filled with misfortune.
The mast of the ship broke, and the crew threatened to jump ship. Sickness and desertions threatened the expedition before the ship had even begun to cross the Indian Ocean. The stifling heat destroyed the food and drinks. When the pilot had identified the reefs of Maldives, the captain was ill, and the Corbin was virtually left to herself before the tragedy happened.
The survivors were held captive for five years and only four lived it, including Francois Pyrard. He wrote: “Those who had money, and who by this means could obtain food, filled their bellies without discretion; and being in a country where the air is very unhealthy for all strangers, even for those of a similar climate, they fell ill, and died one after another, nay more, in place of receiving aid and consolation from their fellows, those who were without money and in great need came and stripped them, and took their money before they were dead, the healthy who survived fought with one another who should have it, and banded themselves two against two, and finally messmate against messmate, with so little charity, that they would see their comrades and fellow countrymen die before their eyes without giving them any assistance or succour. I have never seen a sight so pitiable and deplorable.”
In 1907, Pyrard and his three remaining companions were taken to India, and they returned to France.
The Guraidhoo Wreck
In the 16th century, a Chinese ship with a cargo of porcelain and Chinese merchandise from Indonesia was wrecked near the island of Guraidhoo in South Malé Atoll. This was witnessed by Francois Pyrard, who said only 100 from 500 passengers survived.
He recorded: “Judging merely from the mast of this vessel, I thought it was the largest I had ever seen, for the mast was taller and thicker than those of the Portuguese carracks; and the king of the Maldives built a shed of the length of the mast to keep it as a curiosity. I saw another mast and a top much larger than those of Portugal. Thus was I led to believe that in the Indies they build vessels larger and of better material than in Portugal or anywhere else in the world. The greatest ships come from the coast of Arabia, Persia, and Mogor, and some have as many as 2,000 persons on board.”
The Ravenstein was an 800-ton vessel of the Dutch East India Company. It was sailing from the Netherlands to Jakarta with a cargo of gold and silver when it ran aground in Meemu Atoll in 1726.
At the time of loss, nine chests of silver and one chest of gold were discovered. The captain, Antony Klink, sent the rest of the crew to Male’, while he remained for one month at Maduvvari island. A letter wrote by Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar II (1720-50 AD) to the Dutch Governor of Ceylon described Klink’s outrageous behavior.
“He (the captain) expected them to work like European sailors, not taking into consideration the fact that they are only wretched creatures who look upon the smallest service extracted from them as a grievous oppression. You are well aware gentlemen, of the nature of the islanders,” wrote the Sultan. He sent the crew of Ceylon with the recovered property, after inviting them to return in the calmer months to save the rest of the goods.