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The Pepper Wreck Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Filipe Castro

Archaeologists reconstruct the story of a ship that nearly made it home.

On the morning of September 16th, 1606, people living along the banks of the Tagus River near Lisbon, Portugal, awoke to an astonishing sight: a black tide of peppercorns, worth a royal fortune, tainting the already dark and stormy water for miles. Bobbing here and there among the peppercorns were boxes of other exotic spices and bales of expensive white cotton cloth from India, along with the bodies of some two hundred crewmen and passengers of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, an enormous nau, or cargo ship, that had wrecked at the mouth of the Tagus the day before.

Portugal's preeminence as the Western world's greatest commercial center relied completely upon its East India route, but remarkably little is known about the ships that plied it. As one Portuguese naval scholar has pointed out, we know less about the "India nau" than we do about the ships of ancient Egypt or Rome. Only a handful of texts and a few depictions, mostly painted or carved by artists unfamiliar with ships, have survived the five centuries following the country's golden age of exploration and trade. And of the few Portuguese ships from this period to have been salvaged, the only one with any substantial portion of its hull remaining is the ill-fated Nossa Senhora dos Mártires. What we have recovered from the Mártires has helped us to better understand the ships of this critical eastward expansion, which carried people, merchandise, and ideas between two continents.

Filipe Castro is a professor of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University. He was codirector, with Francisco Alves, of the Mártires excavation from 1996 to 1998, and directed the excavation from 1999 to 2001 under the auspices of the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), and Texas A&M University. He would like to thank Eduardo Prado Coelho, Simonetta Luz Afonso, João Zilhão, Francisco Alves, INA, and Texas A&M for their support.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America