top of page

Silenced seavoices: the stolen, looted, and hidden histories of our oceans

Written by Dr. Arturo Rey da Silva, University of Edinburgh

Fisher’s boat sailing along the coast of the Island of Mozambique ©
Fisher’s boat sailing along the coast of the Island of Mozambique © Arturo Rey da Silva

Be wary before the ocean

It remains cryptic

However intrepid you are

The sea contains waves

Other mysteries and riddles

Were it not for the colour and dust

Unaccountable things there are

When it approaches

You must tremble

When you are in the vessel

Concentrate on your confines

For should you glimpse the djinns

Don’t delve too deeply into the sea

Beseech God’s help

It seduces you into travel

When you get comfortable

Be careful

Ceaseless waves

Not evident to untrained eyes

You would not leave

And giant fish

Too great to understand

With a sense of urgency

Fake fearlessness

Ignore what’s beyond your ken

There and then your journey ends

You will worry

To reach your destination

Haji Gora Haji

Bahari usichungue (Don’t delve into the sea/ Recondite Seas)

Translation Abubakar Zein Abubakar, Dr Mshai Mwangola

The Ocean speaks numerous languages, some dead, others indecipherable, some past and others still unwritten. Some of the words of these languages are hidden in archaeological remains and intangible traditions, some in the stories and histories of the people who live them. All are now threatened by a destructive censorship while awaiting the moment to tell their stories. In this analogy, censorship can be understood in many forms, but two are particularly powerful and destructive. On one hand, we have censorship represented by the looting and robbery of archaeological materials by those who seek economic benefit in the remains of the past. On the other hand, we may understand censorship as the drastic and aggressive global policy of economic growth that now expands without measure to the seas of the planet. Whereas the former has already dispossessed the Oceans from thousands of its more outstanding submerged archaeological sites, the latter has already changed, silenced, or uprooted the possibility of communicating with the past and the marine environment from innumerable coastal societies. The threats are many, and they advance silently under the banner of global well-being, progress, or development, leaving the histories of many societies silent. This too often results in societies finding it difficult to defend their present, and they end up losing track of their future directions. While this also happens as part of economic development and looting in sites on land, the depths of our seas are still invisible to the eyes of those who fight to preserve and safeguard their natural and cultural wonders.

In the Anthropocene, the influence and impact of humanity is being felt more than ever in the way we extend our activities beyond borders that were impassable just a few years ago. If we do not prevent it, the sea will become an object of consumption, another territory that needs to be parcelled out, colonised, regulated, and controlled for economic development. This new economic frontier, the so-called Blue Economy, threatens to only benefit a few while it will no doubt affect the way of life of all those who live from the sea, all those who, in short, are the sea.

Many of the voices that speak to us about the current and historic communication between humanity and the marine environment, although more accessible than ever, are also more threatened than ever. The speed with which economic development is taking over the ocean frontier is greater than the ability of governments, communities, and society in general to listen, understand, and incorporate what the voices of the Ocean tell us. How can we protect the history of the Ocean if their testimonies disappear before being able to know them? As has happened so many times throughout history, without speaking the language of the Ocean, without giving rights to those past, present, and future voices that inhabit its waters, coasts, and aquatic systems, the human incursion beyond this last frontier may represent one of the worst and most genocidal colonizing endeavours in our history.

Those voices to which I refer are none other than those spoken by all things -objects, people, natural phenomena, animals, cities, ports, etc.- that make the Ocean the complex network of interdependent connections formed over time and that give life to our planet. It is not possible to act exclusively on a part of this vast Ocean reality without considering all of its components and without knowing how they have been formed, and what their history is.

Just as a person's childhood, relationships with their parents, or first friendships are essential to understanding the adult individual, the sea cannot be understood without its past.

This history is that of many, interconnected by links that go beyond the conventional spatiotemporal divisions of the academic world today. From the Roman amphora of a 1st century BC Roman wreck lying on the sea floor of the Mediterranean basin; to the remains of a steam ship that now forms a colony of marine biodiversity in the Western Indian Ocean; to the anthropic marks on the use of mangroves by coastal societies; or the remains that, for years, float in the pelagic waters creating dynamic and changeable archaeological contexts; we have to understand that there are many forms of water, and many ways to understand frameworks, perspectives, and languages that are formed throughout a vast space, the Ocean, and throughout a vast time frame. All this together can provide us with important messages about the evolution and situation of our oceans, and of humanity.

This history does not have to be exclusively measured in academic and Western chronological terms (years, months, weeks, days) but can be understood through other systems of documenting the past, passed down orally and embedded in ceremonies, beliefs, and stories, inherent to the traditional knowledge of many local communities and indigenous populations. Communities that, given the expansion of current globalization, are losing the link with their roots and the connection with their natural environment that is changing at a rate never seen before. It is possibly the conjunction of these systems that can give us a more complete vision and greater knowledge about the many components that make up the languages of the Ocean.

Studying the history of the sea is a path that brings together many of the current scientific disciplines, such as biology, geology, oceanography, sociology, archaeology, anthropology, and many more. However, it is also not a story that must be understood as static, as the Ocean is part of the great diversity of the planet and, as such, there is great variety in the way in which its traces have marked and influenced the future of its societies.

In my case, my approach to that history was made from the study of its past through maritime archaeology, and from my experience as a heritage professional trying to protect those vestiges of the past, and understanding the present processes that use them and give them value. I define myself as a maritime archaeologist and I am passionate about studying the material remains of humanity's interaction with the sea. I have always been fascinated by the discovery of ancient shipwrecks, their excavation, unveiling their secrets, their routes and destinations, their cargo and crew; or the stories hidden in the sunken structures of cities that, due to different disasters, are found today some metres beneath the sea surface. All these stories, these voices of the past, have attracted me since I was very little, and studying them was as if entering a mystery world, or an undiscovered museum. Over time, however, I recognize that the mysticism created around the monumentality of the archaeological object, or the site itself, has in fact moved towards understanding its role in nature and society. How the past influences current societies and their environment is as important as discovering the secrets of that past and makes history extremely relevant to today’s global challenges.

Maritime archaeology focuses on the history of humanity and its relationship with the sea through the study of its material culture.

From the study of sunken ships -archetypal archaeological sites-, to the study of ports, or submerged urban structures, the discipline has moved from the study of wrecks understood as 'time capsules', to the study of the maritime landscape and the connections between society, the environment, and material culture, to understand the archaeological record of the sea as something in motion, dynamic, in an act of continuous change.

This idea of continuous change affects our way of interpreting the data contained in the material remains and, at the same time, helps us see past changes suffered through generations. It helps us understand the multiple functions that archaeological remains can have throughout history, whether as a means of transportation, symbols of national construction protected in a museum, centres of marine biodiversity, or as mythologised ideas in the beliefs of a community. This idea of the mutability of material remains (as well as their immaterial associations and values) also influences the different approaches to the management and preservation of submerged archaeological remains - typically based on containing deterioration and monitoring change. It is more difficult, however, to translate this diversity and dynamism of heritage within the international legal frameworks and guidelines that, adopted several decades ago, focus on conventional postulates of object, site, and monument, maintaining a nature-culture divide, as if they were two unconnected realities.

UNESCO and the international community, concerned about the continuous looting of submerged archaeological sites, adopted the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage in 2001. The objective of this agreement is the protection of archaeological remains submerged for more than a hundred years in all the waters of the planet, joining cooperative efforts between States. For its full achievement, all the countries on the planet, especially the great maritime powers, would need to be part of it and apply it conscientiously. Although advancing at a slow rate, we cannot deny that the Convention is gaining momentum and more and more countries, especially from the Global South, are joining it and looking to apply its postulates to their national realities. But what does this mean?

Based on a system of respect for the sovereign state, which is who decides how to apply these international policies at the national level, the Convention has been the international response to protect the submerged remains that contain the untold stories of the history of humanity at sea. UNESCO thus draws its sword and faces the fight against treasure hunting and looting of those archaeological sites found in the depth of our Ocean, which for decades has been defined as 'the largest museum of antiquities on the planet'. A museum that lacks guards or security systems, and whose collections are still largely unknown today. UNESCO enhanced international cooperation to advance scientific research in the Ocean, and to stop the censorship and destruction originated by looting, treasure hunting, and aggressive economic growth.

In my professional life, I have been fortunate to work within the Secretariat of this Convention, assisting States parties to create that infrastructure and knowledge to be able to access, study and protect the submerged remains of the past. At first, in my early years as a maritime archaeologist working at UNESCO, my understanding of the Ocean and its past was fairly monolingual. In this sense, I only understood the hidden message in the submerged archaeological remains as a key to know the past. My attention was focused on understanding the past through material remains, while promoting the good application of UNESCO's policies, originally written with that main language in mind. During those years, I was able to see how the great threats to underwater heritage changed shape. From treasure hunters that sought to make agreements with governments with weak legislative frameworks in terms of underwater heritage, there was an increasing shift towards covert action, illegal trafficking, and an increasingly corporate structure. Treasure hunting companies, seeing their scope reduced by the acceptance of greater underwater heritage preservation policies, began to transform their advertising and strategies to dress up as private marine salvage and recovery companies, as well as adopting slogans similar to those of UNESCO with the intention of “saving the submerged heritage of humanity”. This change of facade could be enough to act in countries with still inadequate legal frameworks, exercising dubious diplomacy, and with a lack of knowledge in maritime archaeology, even if a brief evaluation would immediately show the lack of professional ethics and scientific rigor in their actions.

One of UNESCO's first lines of action was then to provide States with the necessary mechanisms to protect submerged heritage from the threat of censorship and destruction perpetrated by these treasure-hunting companies. The emphasis was on giving voice to those submerged remains and sharing their story with all of humanity. And, in a certain way, today we see how the influence of the Convention and its weight have managed to diminish this threat and increase the consideration given to archaeological scientific work, and to the preservation and study of submerged material remains.

The States parties, lacking the capacities, knowledge, and infrastructures to face these threats, would request assistance from UNESCO, which would send its Advisory Body to assess damages, and create guidelines for action. The first assistance missions in underwater cultural heritage fall under this type of action. These are related to the missions to assess the damage caused by treasure hunters in the cases of Haiti (2014), Panama (2015) and Madagascar (2014).

However, is this type of protection enough to be able to understand the past of the Ocean in its totality, or the influence of that past on our present? Should we understand submerged archaeological remains as "time capsules" or are they actually part of a larger network of traces, interactions, interests or even ecosystems in which they acquire new meanings and evolve? Reference has already been made on several occasions to the connection between intangible heritage and local nautical traditions within the interpretations and study of sunken ships. In fact, several types of traditional knowledge of nautical construction are today recognized within the List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity such as the Traditional skills of building and sailing Iranian Lenj boats in the Persian Gulf. This understanding of archaeological sites as part of true "cultural landscapes", a category already integrated within World Heritage processes since the 1990s, made us see those connections of material culture with society and the environment in which it was found. However, this vision, although accepted within maritime archaeology since the 1990s, has not found its place within the way the 2001 Convention is implemented and, therefore, has not been translated within the assistance mechanisms of UNESCO actions.

Anchor from the Portuguese shipwreck Nossa Senhora du Monte Carmo, sunk off the coast of Madagascar
Anchor from the Portuguese shipwreck Nossa Senhora du Monte Carmo, sunk off the coast of Madagascar © Arturo Rey da Silva

In 2016, I had the opportunity to organise a follow-up mission to the work that had been carried out in the UNESCO Mission to Madagascar in 2014, on the Island of Sainte Marie. Here, the treasure hunter Barry Clifford had recently recovered an ingot of silver from the wreck that he identified as the Adventure Galley, famous ship of Scottish Pirate William Kidd, infamously lost without a trace. Clifford, commissioned by a TV channel, alleged to find this ship, together with other ships like William Condon’s Flying Dragon in the waters of the small Island off the north-eastern coast of Madagascar. The Madagascar authorities, not having the means to verify the work and ethics of Clifford, asked UNESCO for assistance and a mission of experts corroborated that the silver ingot was in fact lead, and that the mentioned ships were, in reality, port structures and remains of an Arab ship.

The scientific work conducted by UNESCO showed the lack of scientific rigor of these types of self-claimed explorers.

Following this mission, UNESCO felt there was an important component of community awareness and education that needed to be explored in Sainte Marie Island, as there had been integration of local members within the unethical recovery of archaeological material. I was then sent to carry out a training course first addressed to young professionals and to conduct an evaluation and advisory work within the island's communities. This would help to evaluate knowledge of the island's underwater heritage, as well as to raise awareness of community stakeholders, including fishers, tourist guides, the army, NGOs, schools, and the Island Museum. This mission was organised in cooperation with the African Centre for Heritage Activities (ACHA), a key stakeholder of UNESCO in Africa for marine cultural heritage matters.

We were able to verify that the communities of the Island understood the Ocean as a provider for the community and part of their shared history, since they themselves, according to their own stories, come from the sea. What the sea contains has provided for the survival of the community. It is part of their history and their understanding of the world. The interference of the mission sent by UNESCO to assess the damage done and advise on the protection of the wrecks was seen by the community as at the same level of the operations of treasure hunters, or the actions of the national government in its centralized heritage protection policy. They were all seen as actors external to the island community. Actors who came to take away, steal, and damage what belonged to their history, preserved by the sea, for the community alone. Wouldn't we be affecting a traditional protection system by integrating our well-intentioned actions of "awareness" and "knowledge" of submerged heritage within the community? Wouldn't we be indicating which language should be spoken by those who already speak more languages of the ocean than we do? Perhaps we needed to look at another way of adapting these solutions for global problems to local realities, starting to first understand the use, values, and links of individuals with their marine environment. Perhaps it is necessary to act jointly among all these legal frameworks, action protocols, and marine preservation programs to truly safeguard the sustainability of traditional practices over centuries. The community of Sainte Marie saw UNESCO and treasure hunters as the same thing, which was indicative that something was being done wrong. The community did not feel integrated or understood, and their values and understanding of the Ocean were not prioritised.

Throughout my interaction with the Ocean and its communities, with other cultural programmes and with various marine realities in various parts of the globe, I gradually realised that this materiality of the past was far from being a dead and static language. On the contrary, it was a language that was still alive, and connected by dynamics between society, culture, and nature in the marine environment. Heritage preservation policies, as they happen on land, would go nowhere in the sea if those living connections that make ecosystems are not integrated.

At the same time, the fact that maritime archaeology and UNESCO have excessively focused on the preservation of wrecks as a preferential element of the discipline has caused many local and indigenous communities to see no interest or value in processes that have only studied the heritage of "others". This heritage of the “others” has been connected to a period of conquest, colonization, and slavery that, even though it is part of history, is a dark, conflictive, and often contested past. In this sense, archaeology itself, as well as the traditional conservation practice based on Western ideologies, has influenced UNESCO's policies so much, that it has initially given preference to some narratives of the Ocean (those of the wreck, national agendas, and identities, those of material culture) over others (historical knowledge of coastal communities, immaterial aspects, own cosmogonies).

This reflection coincided with the 2015 adoption of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development of 2030 with a specific goal (Sustainable Development Goal 14) dedicated to preserve the Ocean, to life under water. Although culture and heritage were largely absent from the approved Agenda, culture is seen as essential if sustainable development is to benefit humanity and its environment. Without culture, there is no development. Culture was then redefined as inherent to all the goals of the 2030 Agenda and as a transversal value to the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social, and environmental.

Likewise, in 2020, the entry into force of the United Nations Decade on Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) called for the need to join forces among all disciplines and actors to work for the Ocean. In connection with the goal to preserve the Ocean, it was necessary for international frameworks, such as the 2001 Convention, to seek synergies with the rest of the ocean sciences. According to the Ocean Decade, coastal populations, their ways of life and their traditional knowledge are increasingly important in the development of future strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change or the impacts of development on the Ocean.

Local communities along the coast of Sainte Marie Island, in Madagascar, live by and for the sea, communicating with it in a language developed throughout generations
Local communities along the coast of Sainte Marie Island, in Madagascar, live by and for the sea, communicating with it in a language developed throughout generations © Arturo Rey de Silva

It is possible that the winds are changing for the Ocean. I believe that we are increasingly open to recognizing the existence of the many diverse voices necessary in the fight for ensuring a clean, healthy, and sustainable future for our seas, which translates into ensuring a future for our existence on Earth. However, this race for preservation and sustainability is up against the voracious economic expansion that has arisen from the Blue Economy. The impact that humanity is causing on the Ocean is exponentially greater than ever before, and we need the combined efforts and knowledge of all disciplines, visions, cosmogonies, and ways of using and understanding the Ocean if we are going to succeed in its preservation.

When development priorities are based exclusively on the unsustainable exploitation of marine resources, with the economy as the only measurable growth factor, we run the risk of losing all the information that has been accumulated in these ecosystems. For the first time in history, the last frontier that the Ocean represents is colonized and exploited by humanity, making more and more of this anthropo-oceanic period, a period where globalization has commodified the Ocean, measuring its value in terms of economic provision, geopolitical interest, and wealth.

The Ocean is no longer the largest museum of antiquities on our planet. It is a whole world characterized by dynamic change that influences realities that go beyond its shores. To define it as a museum would be to see it as a gallery where only the objects of interest to a few are those that are protected and displayed. No, the Ocean is not a tool for globalization as museums were in their day for the colonial enterprise. It is, however, a space that is thriving with languages, and voices eager to tell their story, and to pass on their messages.




bottom of page