A sunken ship surfaces in a library

When you think of shipwrecks, you probably think of divers bringing up treasure from the bottom of the sea. But finding and excavating a wreck are only the beginning. Most of the work doesn't take place underwater at all. In fact, the real work is done in libraries, museums, and archives on dry land. What was the name of the ship? Where was it going? What did it carry? Why did it sink? A shipwreck with no name, no history, no context isn't worth much.

This is the story of how a nameless wreck came to life and became a part of history.

In September 1997, I was hired by a shipwreck-excavation company to find out about an old wreck that had been found in the South China Sea. Fishermen had found it by mistake, and the site had been excavated. Now the objects were laid out on the floor of an unused (and un-air-conditioned) room in a Manila museum.

I knew nothing about the ship except where it had been found and what objects had been found in it. These included hundreds of stone items, some of which must have served as ballast. There was nothing of great value, such as Chinese porcelain or caches of silver coins. There was nothing left of the ship itself except a very small piece of wood, probably part of the planking. Cannons had been found at the site. They might have had letters or symbols on them that could have been clues. But the cannons had been left on the bottom. They were too awkward and heavy to lift.

Where could I begin?

I knew the ship was European. An Asian ship would not have carried such objects. But the unusual combination of stone items puzzled me: several carved panels and broken pillars, obviously from an old temple in India; nearly 1,500 granite cannon balls; and about 200 square stones that looked like paving stones. There were also two gravestones. One bore the name of an Armenian who had died in India, and the other of a man from Baghdad. The first one was inscribed in Latin and Armenian. The second was in Latin and Arabic.

The first clue: a date

The temple carvings and pillars told me that the ship must have stopped in India. And now I had a date: 1754 was carved on the Armenian gravestone. That's the earliest the wreck could be.

My work at the museum was hot, sweaty, and dirty. Heavy trucks rumbled by on the busy street outside, belching dirty exhaust containing fine black particles that settled on everything. I cleaned the objects, measured them, sketched them, photographed them. Sometimes I just sat and stared at them, trying to get them to tell me their secrets.

The only money found was about 40 coins - pocket change. They were badly eroded, having been in salt water for centuries. I asked to have them cleaned, which took weeks. I sketched them one at a time, and used a magnifying glass in the hope of seeing details. One happy day I just made out a date on one coin: 1750. Another coin says 175- (the last figure was worn away).

The artifacts could only tell me so much. After two months in Manila, it was on to the libraries!

First stop, the Netherlands

An 18th-century European ship in Asian waters was likely a trading ship. I hoped to find answers in the records of the Dutch and English East India Companies. They had been formed about 1600 in the Netherlands and in England to trade with Asia. The companies no longer exist, but their records are in The Hague and London, respectively. If the ship was an East Indiaman, one of the large, three-masted ships that were the pride of the East India Companies, it will be mentioned in company documents.

I start in the Netherlands. First I make a list of all the ships lost at sea in Southeast Asia between 1755 and 1775, which is when I think the wreck occurred. Nothing I find matches my wreck. But I do find that it might be an English East Indiaman. I go to London.

The English East India Company archives are housed in the British Library. There, several miles of shelves hold ships' ledgers and journals, record books, letters, and other documents. (After all, the company was in existence for nearly 275 years.)

Officials at company headquarters and those in Asia communicated by letter -long letters. Letters were often 100 pages long and had numbered paragraphs and an index at the end. All the records are handwritten, usually in precise and graceful script.

'We are Your loving Friends'

Every day, I went to the library to pore through big binders that list the archives' holdings. I must search for the documents I want to search! Some of the documents I need are on microfilm, but I prefer to use the originals. They are easier to read, even though they are heavy and awkward to handle. Their brown or red-leather bindings are flaking with age.

The work is slow. Sometimes the ink is so faded that the writing is almost illegible. I'm glad the records are in English, but some spellings, usage, and abbreviations puzzle me.

"We do in the most earnest manner recommend you landing the Troops and causing the Cargos to be delivered with the utmost expedition & then forward them to Canton without the least delay, that they may run no risque of losing their Passages," reads one section. Inevitably, the letters are signed not "Sincerely" or even "Yours faithfully," but "We are Your loving Friends."

I check the technical information recorded by the head of the wreck's excavation team and e-mail him with questions, hoping to match the archival information and the ship.

I visit other specialized libraries in France and elsewhere. I meet with historians and coin dealers. I interview experts on ships, Armenia, and Indian art. I go to museums and look for identified objects that resemble my sketches and photographs of the artifacts.

Months go by. Gradually I gather bits of information, pieces of the puzzle.

A likely theory sails into view

The carvings, I find, are from southern India, from a temple dedicated to the god Shiva. They date from the 1500s. The man named on the Armenian gravestone had been a prosperous textile merchant in Madras, India. He died not far away, in Pondicherry, the center of French operations in southern India in the 1700s.

An exciting day is one in which I find a new piece of the puzzle. I begin to come up with theories, but each has major flaws. Then one day I find a likely ship: The Earl Temple had left England in April 1760, carrying troops to India. It called at Bombay, Madras, and - yes! - Pondicherry. Then it sailed for Sumatra and Malacca and was heading for Manila when it struck a reef in the summer of 1763.

The initial details seem to fit. I read all I could find about the ship. But I also looked for evidence that contradicted my new theory. I wanted to be sure I wasn't jumping to conclusions.

One happy day I find a survivors' report by three of the Earl Temple's crew. It explains that the ship left Batavia (modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia) in mid-May 1763 and struck a reef weeks later during a storm. It took the survivors three years to get to Canton (Guangzhou), China, where they found their way back to England.

The facts begin to fit the theory

The details fit what I know about the wreck; the islands and reefs mentioned in the sailors' account match the region where the wreck occurred. It is a strange, exhilarating feeling to be sitting, 236 years later, only a few miles from where the East India Company had its headquarters, and find the information that seems to solve the mystery.

The Earl Temple, in poor condition, had been refused repairs in Batavia. It was heading for Manila to be repaired there. Then it was to sail to China to trade. I conclude that the temple fragments and gravestones were taken aboard as ballast in Pondicherry. British forces had leveled the French-held city less than three months before the Earl Temple called there in April 1761. Stone rubble would have been everywhere.

The Armenian gravestone? That's a story in itself, but there isn't space to tell it here. The cannon balls were aboard to defend the ship; the paving stones were probably bound for a church in Manila.

The March deadline for turning in my research arrives. There is no conclusive proof that the ship is the Earl Temple, but there's lots of evidence to support that theory. I'm ready to begin on another wreck....

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