August 29, 2020
By Admiral (Retd) Ravindra C Wijegunaratne
Former Chief of Defence Staff
In 2008, I was the Commander Southern Naval Area. It was my first appointment as an Area Commander. In May 2008, I received an email from an unknown foreigner to my official email account. The sender was a Dutch National who had travelled to Sri Lanka in month the of April 2008. The email read as follows:”As I was a keen SCUBA diver, I joined diving expedition arranged by KALU from Hikkaduwa on Great Basses reef off Kirinda fishing village. We traveled in a van from Hikkaduwa early morning on 14th April. There were five more foreigners and three locals in our group. KALU carried all diving equipments required for dive. I became friendly with KALU and he spoke of the Basses reef and its underwater beauty.”
“On arrival at Kirinda, we hired a fishing boat to reach our first day diving site near the Great Basses lighthouse. Sea was flat calm and visibility underwater was excellent. While others were observing the underwater beauty and caves in the reef, I dived closer to KALU. He stopped at one place, took out a chisel and a small hammer from his diving bag and broke the pieces of rock, which looked like a part of coral reef. When he showed me the piece of these corals, there were small coins inside it. I was surprised.”
That evening, at my hotel room I logged into Internet and found details of Silver Coin ship wreck in Great Basses reef. KALU told me not to tell about the incident to anyone and offered me a few coins he recovered that day. I declined the offer knowing it was a crime. I have seen a few of his assistants also wearing these coins on their neck chains. Dear Sir, please stop this day light robbing of historical shipwreck of Indian Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.” Alarm bells rang at Southern Naval Command! Most important historic shipwreck in our waters being plundered! That came to light thanks to a law-abiding Dutch tourist.
The Basses reef is approximately seven nautical miles away from our Southern coast off Kirinda/ Yala area. Until this reef was marked during British time with two light houses, the Great Basses Lighthouse commissioned in March 1873 and Little Basses Lighthouse in March 1878—it had a dangerous navigational hazard for ancient ships that moved on the East-West trade route. A large number of ancient ships perished hitting this reef. These shipwrecks are burial grounds for brave and enterprising sailors who went down to “Davy Jones’s Locker” (naval term for sea bottom).
So, these are ancient grave yards at sea. As seafarers, we do not allow anyone to dig watery graveyards. These brave sailors who perished out at sea should Rest in Peace. Some mythological stories say this was the kingdom of King Rawana, which went under water.
Mughal Emperor’s ship loaded with “Surat-minted” pure silver coin ship with 14 cannon was one of these grave yards.
The story of this silver coin ship is fascinating and a clear indication that the sixth and last Mughal Emperor of India, who ruled from North of Kaveri River (present-day Karanataka/ Tamilnadu) to Kabul ( Afganistán), the largest and most richest Mughal kingdom, had ships going from the old port city of Surat to Mecca carrying Muslims on holy pilgrimage, who ruled his Empire for 49 years. He was the sixth child of Emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal) and queen Mumtaz Mahal, Emperor Aurangzeb “Alamgir”( in Persian – Conqueror of the World) had intentions to find out trade routes to China and Japan. His ship left the Port city of Surat with wooden chests full of silver coins in cloth bags, each carrying one thousand coins. The 41st year of his reign over four million square kilometers of land and 158 million subjects fell in 1701. With US $ 450 million equal (then) annual revenue, his Empire was the world’s largest economy and biggest manufacturing power at that time. His earnings were 10 times larger than his contemporary, King Louis XIV of France.
However, Emperor Aurangzeb’s best Captain and sailors, who were new to the waters south of Sri Lanka, had no clue of the Basses reef. Going by the location of the whipwreck, it is clear that the Captain had sailed inside the reef, not outside of it. The Emperor was informed of the loss of his valuable ship in the Bay of Bengal. Everyone thought at that time, it had been caught by the pirates operating in Mallaca area (off today’s Malaysia/ Indonesia).
History says, in 1703, Mughal Commander at Coromandel, Daud Khan Panni spent 10,500 coins to purchase 30 to 50 war elephants from Ceylon. These purchases were approved by Sinhala King Wimaladharmasooriya ll in Kandy, according to the book, “Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers to Highroads to Empire 1500 to 1700” by Jos Commans (page 122). So, was the ship sailing to ancient Trincomalee harbour (Gokanna Thitta) from Surat (on Western side of India), rounding up Sri Lanka to reach the Gokanna Thittia harbour to purchase war elephants? We do not know. Anyway we were the main supplier of war elephants to the world at that time until muskets and mobile cannon came into being.
In 1961, two enterprising young Sri Lankan/American persons, namely Mike Wilson and Arthur C Clarke diving in the Basses reef looking for suitable underwater filming locations for famous Sinhala film “Ranmutu Duwa” found this valuable shipwreck. At that time they did not know the origin of the ship.
Arthur C Clarke wrote, “Nothing except perhaps a landing of a flying saucer in one’s backyard, quite as disruptive of everyday life as the discovery of sunken treasure. There are very few people who can confirm this, but by a series of most unlikely events, I happened to be among them”
As the area was not within territorial waters of Sri Lanka at that time (1961), (12 nautical miles limit of territorial waters came into effect in early 1980s,) those who found the shipwreck were allowed to take away what they found. It was reported that more than 750 lbs. of silver coins were removed during that time. Today world renowned coin collectors buy one coin at rate of US $ 1,200 to 1,500. Just imagine the total value of a 1,000-coin lump!
The wooden chests and cloth bags decayed over 250 years but the silver coins were held together by coral and calcium deposit. What KALU found and what the lawful Dutch tourist reported to the Southern Naval Commander was only part of such a lump.
Action by late Dr Arthur C Clarke, where he sent a 1,000- coin lump to Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, USA, in the 1960 s, for research work has helped confirm that the ship belonged to Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Later action by our own Archeology Department to use Dr Peter Throckmorton, a pioneer underwater archeologist, commonly known as the Father of Underwater Archeology on this project shed more light on the history of the ship. The discovery carefully documented by Dr Clarke later became the basis of his famous book in 1964, “Treasure of Great Basses”.
However, this incident, in 2008 April, showed us that the world famous and invaluable shipwreck in our waters available for underwater archeology studies was being systematically plundered. The Navy acted swiftly and started patrolling this sea area. A Navy/Coast Guard diving centre was established in Kirinda and anyone going for diving has to be registered with it. They are frequently checked by the Navy and no artifacts are allowed to be removed from these ancient shipwrecks.
The Weather Gods have protected these treasures for centuries. The sea is extremely rough with unpredictable currents during the North-East and South-West monsoons which make it extremely dangerous to dive around Light Houses and the reef. Two windows are available for competent divers a year in December and March-April. Now, the Navy is extremely alert during these times and no more KALU s.
Please, help the Navy to protect these national treasures and graveyards of brave sailors who perished under tragic circumstances. You can visit the Coast Guard Diving Station Kirinda to learn more about Basses reef from experienced Diving Officer there, Ship salvage diver, Commander Godakanda, when you visit south next time. Please come during December or March/April to dive under Navy’s supervision to see beauty of mythical King Rawanas kingdom underwater.