Indonesia's shipwrecks mean riches and headaches

By Robin McDowel - Seattlepi


Mamat Evendi straps on his primitive breathing device — a garden hose attached to a compressor on the back of his wooden fishing boat. Pulling down his goggles, he splashes flippers-first into the crystal blue water.

A few minutes later he's flashing a "thumbs up," pointing first to a massive, coral-encrusted anchor, then a bronze cannon and finally, peeking up from the sand, the buried deck of a 17th century European ship.

Nearby are pieces of blue-and-white ceramics. A tiny perfume bottle. A sword handle. Broken wine flasks, one still sealed with a wooden cork.

The wreck is just 6 meters (20 feet) underwater, one of four pushed into view after a tsunami slammed into the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia just over a year ago.

They are among possibly 10,000 vessels littering the ocean floor of what for more than a millennium has been a crossroads for world trade.

For historians, the wrecks are time capsules, a chance to peer directly into a single day, from the habits of the crew and the early arrival of religion to contemporary tastes in ceramics. But for Evendi and other fishermen involved in the new discoveries, it's not the past they see.

It's the future. A chance, maybe, to strike it rich.

"They keep telling me, 'Let's just break them open, get the stuff out,'" said Hardimansyah, a local maritime official who has taken it upon himself to protect the wrecks as the government wrangles over a new policy on underwater heritage.

"To be honest, I'm getting frustrated, too," he says, noting he's already given the best artifacts pulled from the coral and sand to military and political officials who stop by his office from time to time to see what's been found. "Gifts," he calls them, or "offerings."

"It's hard to say no if they ask."

Mamat Evendi Indonesia Mentawai Island Sumatra Cannon wreck fisherman