Just before the Portuguese surrendered to the Arabs in 1697, there was an intense battle for control of Fort Jesus on the Kenyan coast.
In the process, a Portuguese warship that had been deployed near the fort was sunk. Christened Santo Antonio, the ship still lies on the sea bed near the fort, piling on rust by the kilo.
But Santo Antonio’s fate could soon change because the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) is planning to salvage it and turn it into a tourist attraction.
Industry players say there is a fortune lying deep in the waters that surround Mombasa, one of the most important trade and military destinations of the 17th century.
Because of its role as a convergence point for Portuguese, Arab, and British explorers, the port town witnessed some of the bloodiest conflicts during that era, and NMK believes that there are tens of ships wrecked around the island.
Underwater archaeologists say that, if well preserved, these shipwrecks and the artefacts they are believed to hold could help revive cultural tourism at the Coast, a sector whose fortunes have dwindled over the past few years.
For instance, statistics indicate that the number of foreign and local visitors to Fort Jesus, the main cultural site at the Coast, has remained at around 170,000 a year in the past five years — apart from 2008, when it declined to 130,000 due to the political turmoil that rocked the country that year.
And, with the current decline in cruise tourism due to pirate activity in the Indian Ocean, a substitute product is necessary to supplement the shortfall in earnings.
Kenya’s tourism earnings have been on the rise over the past three years, with the industry earning the exchequer Sh73.4 billion in 2010, up from Sh62 billion the previous year, while projections for last year, whose figures have yet to be released, are in the range of Sh80 billion.
However, the industry is banking on diversification into high-end products — besides the traditional safaris and beach tourism — if this growth is to be sustained.
Two weeks ago, Mr Caesar Bita, the National Museums’ head of underwater archaeology, accompanied by his colleague Phillip Wanyama (the two are the only underwater archaeologists in the country), spent several hours examining Santo Antonio before going to Ngomeni in the South Coast for yet another exploration.
“One of the ways to preserve these artefacts and turn them into tourist attractions is by securing the wreck and fitting it with underwater cameras that transmit images to visitors above sea level. Given today’s technology, this is possible, although a bit expensive,” says Mr Bita.
There are many other ships that sank off Mombasa, including Highland Lassie (1879), Sussex (1909), and Hamad (1909). Of the 32 known shipwrecks along the Kenyan coastline, 11 have lain in the deep waters for more than 50 years. The rest have been there for a shorter period.
In Africa, heritage tourism has not been fully exploited to attract high value tourists who make an average of three visits annually, according to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO).
But now heritage professionals in Kenya and Egypt are working towards realising the objective of generating revenue by providing underwater cultural tours where visitors can enjoy the flora and fauna of the deep seas.
Mr Wanyama says the museum is carrying out a search in the Indian Ocean to document shipwrecks in Mombasa, Malindi, and Lamu, then ways of conserving them while they work to build capacity to implement the project.
Findings from the study will be linked to the history of the growth and development of the three towns, and the National Museums of Kenya is at the initial stages of documenting the wrecks to establish their status, stability in the ocean, and the material used in their construction.
“We shall look at the existing parts of the wrecks, engine block, and timber and make reference with others manufactured at that period across the world,” says Mr Wanyama. “From there, we will develop a sketch of the original ship.”
According to the NMK Act, properties that qualify to be listed as underwater cultural heritages are those that are over 50 years old.
The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) defines cultural heritage as those that have attained the 100-year mark and which have been consistently in water.
In Malindi, the latest discovery is of a ship that sank in the 14th century. Mr Bita, who discovered the wreck while doing a survey in 2008 at Ngomeni, two kilometres from the shoreline at a depth of 10 metres, says further research is being conducted to establish the name of the ship that has been christened Ngomeni.
“We expect that the ship will be the oldest among those that sunk along the Kenyan coastline,” he says, adding that studies were underway to determine the origin, age, cargo, and type of timber used to construct it.
And in Lamu, NMK is working with the Chinese government in a three-year project to study the wreck of a ship that is believed to have sank off the Kenyan coast 600 years ago.
The ship is claimed to have sailed during China’s Ming Dynasty as part of the fleet led by Adm Zheng He, who reached Malindi in 1418.
China is building a giant underwater museum to preserve and exploit an ancient shipwreck that is more than 800 years old.
Other countries that have exploited this resource include Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
An underwater museum planned to be established in Alexandria, Egypt, will be one of its kind in Africa.
However, according to archaeologists, establishing such a museum needs heavy investment in equipment to ensure safety underwater and highly trained personnel.
Mr Bita and Mr Wanyama were trained in China and Egypt because Africa has been slow to introduce such programmes in its educational institutions.
Underwater archaeology studies in Africa are only offered at the Alexandria University in Egypt.
To implement the underwater museum project, tour guides would have to be trained on how to conduct excursions and ensure visitors’ safety.
“So long as the guides abide by instructions, nothing should go wrong while enjoying underwater sites,” says Mr Wanyama.
Tourism industry players have lauded the project, saying it should be exploited to attract more tourists to coastal towns.
Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association (MCTA) chairman Mohamed Hersi says underwater museums have great potential to attract thousands of visitors, who visit cultural sites if they are maintained to international standards.
He cites the Globe Star, a cargo ship that sank along Nyali Reef with 10,000 tonnes of wheat on April 27, 1973, and a part of which is visible above the waterline, as one of the cultural treasures that are waiting to be exploited.
Despite an intensive salvage operation, Globe Star broke in half and was abandoned. In November of the same year, five people involved in a salvage attempt died in one of the cargo holds due to gas poisoning.
“These wrecks — with the accompanying history and intrigues — would attract many tourists and boost revenue as well as create jobs,” Mr Hersi says.