MACAU MAGAZINE (August 2000: 60-66).




Visionary dreams and a few remains spurred a Japanese carpenter from the town of Fukuda to try for over thirteen years to retrieve from the depths of the sea what he is convinced is the "Madre de Deus", a Portuguese ship that sank there at the beginning of the 17th century.


Things were not going well in 1608 for the seamen and samurai of the shuin sen, the ships with the shogunís "vermilion seal" that allowed them to sail to foreign countries, and which belonged to the lord of Arima, the Christian daimyo Harunobu Arima.
They had set sail for Siam to bring the usual precious woods, in particular those to make Japanese incense. The return voyage was delayed and they were forced to spend the winter in Macau, where, during their over-long and idle stay, the Japanese got into some serious fights with the local residents. The samuraisí fearful swords had taken a few lives and the men presumed guilty were condemned to death and executed.
The following year in June, André Pessoa, captain of the ship "Nossa Senhora da Graça" - also known as "Madre de Deus"- , arrived on his Japanese voyage to the port of Nagasaki. She was loaded with Chinese silk and other products much appreciated by the Japanese.
Annoyed at what had happened to his men in Macau, the daimyo Harunobu Arima had complained about it at Sumpujo Castle at the foot of Mount Fuji, the home of the all-powerful shogun regent Ieyasu Tokugawa, who, in turn, requested an explanation from André Pessoa. When told of the circumstances, Ieyasu not only deemed the Portuguese to be in the right but ruled that henceforth no Japanese vessel could return to Macau.
Meanwhile, the Japanese survivors of the incidents in Macau returned home and presented a different version of the story to the lord Arima, who once again went and complained to Ieyasu. The shogun then changed his mind about his previous decision, and gave orders for André Pessoa to be arrested. The diligent Harunobo Arima, hoping to please the shogun, plotted with the governor of Nagasaki, and taking advantage that he was a Roman Catholic himself, managed to persuade the bishop of Nagasaki, Monsignor Luís Cequeira S.J. to invite André Pessoa for a meal at his home in order to capture and kill him. Warned of the plot, the Portuguese captain recalled the few Portuguese he managed to find back on board ship, cut the ropes and set off to sea. When the daimyo knew of the escape, he sent his men in pursuit of the Portuguese and a vast number of small rowing boats went after the "Madre de Deus" and tried to encircle her.
The crew, in reduced numbers, had their hands full trying to stop attempts to board ship and consequently were unable to man the ship properly and sail with the little wind there was.
On the third day, 6th January 1610, the "Madre de Deus" was just about the leave the bay of Nagasaki and find strong winds which would allow her to escape quickly, when a Portuguese seaman who was getting ready to toss a tub of burning matter onto an enemy boat from the side of the ship received a wound on his hand and accidentally set fire to the sails. When André Pessoa saw that all was lost without their sails, he seized a firebrand, walked up to the powder-magazine and lit it. The men who survived the explosion and were trying to swim away and escape - among them a Jesuit priest - were hacked to death by the Japanese in the surrounding boats. The only Portuguese left alive were those still ashore.


To salvage a ship in a dream

Thirteen years ago, Matsumoto Shizuo, a carpenter who lives in the small village of Teguma-cho along the coast not far from Nagasaki, had the same disturbing dream for three nights running and it completely changed his peaceful life. In the dream, the voice of a woman who said she was Maria-san (in other words, Our Lady) told him she wanted him to repair a sunken ship that had broken in two. She also wanted a life-size statue of Our Lady to be erected there in honour of those who had died in the shipwreck. Although disturbing, it was only a dream. Itís just that Matsumoto Shizuo is ... a Buddhist! Now, had Buddha appeared in his dreams, that might be understandable, but to be contacted by Our Most Catholic Lady to repair a ship when he is a house carpenter and not a shipís-carpenter was a little more unusual. But be that as it may, he didnít have the courage to turn the request down and for three nights in a row he dreamed he was being taken to the bottom of the sea where, after a great deal of work, he managed to complete the task he had been asked to do.
But things didnít remain like this. That dream, which had seemed so vivid, preyed on his mind, leaving him no peace. He remembered that he had heard his father and other old people of the neighbourhood tell that a namban sen (namban ship) had once sunk many years before off the village. But he didnít really know what namban meant - something connected with a Russian ship, he thought vaguely - until someone told him about the "Madre de Deus". From that moment on, Matsumoto became obsessed and spent his time trying to discover and investigate everything that touched upon the matter. The namban sen obsession not only spread to his wife, children, son-in-law and daughter-in-law but also to their friends and other people who lived in that area.


Salvaging a namban sen

A large crowd including Bishop Luís Cequeira, Father João Rodrigues and other Portuguese and Japanese Jesuits had watched the sea battle from ashore, and thus many a detailed account of the events has reached us today together with the bearings of where the Madre de Deus sank. After considerable effort and persistence, Matsumoto managed to get the help he needed to comb the area described by the Jesuits with the most sophisticated detector for several years, but there was no sign of the "Madre de Deus". Tenacious and strong-willed, he remained undeterred and transferred his search to an area a little further ahead, which was, coincidentally, the area he remembered his father saying was where a namban sen had once sunk.
After a long period of research, they eventually found a vessel 45 metres underwater about 600 metres off Fukuda just at the mouth of the Nagasaki bay. It was a Japanese fishing boat, and Matsumoto Shizuo wasnít contented. No, this was decidedly not the ship that he was "to repair" for Maria-san. He insisted with the divers and they continued to search in the same place until they found, buried in the mud and exactly under the Japanese fishing boat, another ship. This ship was much older and there was every indication that she could be the "Madre de Deus" as there was no record of any other vessel of that tonnage and description having sunk in the bay of Nagasaki.
Since then Matsumoto has spent all his savings and energy on salvaging the "Madre de Deus" from the deep sea. He built outside his house a tank nearly two metres by four with fresh water to preserve the boards and planks recovered from the wreck. The garage has become an underwater archaeology deposit filled with different plastic containers with pieces of wood, bolts, nails, ceramic shards, small pine cones of the Iberian wild pine tree (very different from the pines in Japan) probably used to light fires on board, as well as an enormous anchor.
Portuguese ships were built of oak from the holm-oak and cork-oak, but the hull was usually made of planks of wild pine, which were stored on the world journeys in case repairs were needed or then exotic or local wood had to be used. It happens that all the wood of this shipwreck salvaged from the sea depths off Fukuda is mainly oak and wild pine, with a piece here or there of Chinese cedar and just a little teak, which Mr Matsumoto sent to be analysed in Tokyo and which were subsequently dated to before the sinking of the "Madre de Deus".


A Buddhist making a Christian promise

Matsumoto Shizuo was convinced that this was the ship belonging to the sea-captain André Pessoa so he had a life-size image of Our Lady sculpted in stone and erected on the island of Matshima, close to the location, and thus accomplished the second request made by Maria-san. The statue was blessed on site by the priest, Diego Yuuki, a Spanish Jesuit now nationalised Japanese. He has lived in Nagasaki for many years and as a historian has undertaken important investigative work on the so-called "Portuguese period" of Japan.
The press has covered the matter with interest. Even NHK, the largest Japanese television network, has shown a documentary about the "Madre de Deus" with underwater shots, unfortunately made rather unspectacular and difficult to make out because of the thick layer of mud that covers the area and the murkiness of the water.
The ship sank a few days before she was supposed to leave on her journey back to Macau, that is to say, when, in theory, the Chinese silk in the hold had already been converted into Japanese silver. This is why so many attempts have been made throughout the years to recover the treasure. As was the case in 1928, when according to some account, some supposedly Portuguese helmets and an anchor were salvaged.
In 1620, the crew of some shuin sen boats owned by a wealthy Kyoto merchant said that when crossing the bay of Nagasaki they saw from the surface of the water the top of one of the masts of the "Madre de Deus". It was at low tide, the water particularly clear and the ship was at a depth of little over ten metres. One of the crew was so impressed by what he saw that he described the ship to a painter in Nagasaki and asked him to make a drawing of her.


She is or not the "Madre de Deus" - that is the question

One of the doubts raised as to whether Matsumotoís find is the real thing or not is connected to the answer to a request for information made to the Marine Museum in Lisbon about the anchor that was recovered. The answer attests that the anchor in question is of the "admiralty" type, which belongs to period later than the "Madre de Deus". We contacted the sub-director of the Marine Museum in Lisbon and took photographs of the anchor with us. He put us in touch with his two anchor specialists, Gonçalves Neves and José Vale, who hold history degrees. They confirmed that the anchor was in fact an "admiralty" type anchor but of the same period as the "Madre de Deus". They explained that the confusion could have arisen from the fact that this type of anchor, although known since the 15th century, has only actually been called "admiralty" in the last two centuries or so.
When the same question was put at the Centro Nacional de Arqueologia Náutica e Subaquática (National Centre for Nautical and Underwater Archaeology), a number of specialists, including Paulo Jorge Rodrigues, an underwater archaeologist and scientific advisor to the director, confirmed that there was no longer any doubt that the anchor in question could have belonged to the "Madre de Deus".
We were also shown two identical anchors, one of which was found five years ago on a large, late-15th century ship, which was discovered during work on the underground connection to Cais do Sodré next to the river in Lisbon. The other anchor appeared also a few years ago on the wreck of the "Nossa Senhora dos Mártires". It used to sail on the India route and sank in 1606 off the S. Julião da Barra Fort at the entrance to Lisbon.
Among those who lost their lives when the "Nossa Senhora dos Mártires" sank was the Jesuit, Father Francisco Rodrigues, who had been sent in 1602 by the Society of Jesus in Nagasaki as their proctor to Rome. He had boarded D. Paulo de Portugalís ship for Macau and from there to India. Father Francisco travelled in the company of a Japanese Christian, baptised Miguel, who was to survive the shipwreck. Besides the anchor a number of jars containing pepper were found, as well as two astrolabes, some canons and different pieces of ceramic of the same kind that had been salvaged by Matsumoto on his "Madre de Deus".
But it was relatively easy to lose an anchor as a result of cutting the rope because of a sudden storm or some other reason, and that is why ships normally carried two or three anchors. There were even cases when all anchors were lost and some kind of anchor had to be found at the earliest opportunity. Consequently, it was possible to find Arab, Chinese, Japanese or other kinds of anchors on a Portuguese ship, which means that a ship cannot be properly identified in underwater archaeological terms only by her anchor.


Support to continue

Meanwhile, the "admiralty" type anchor dating end of the 15th century, the pieces of ceramic identical to those found on other Portuguese ships of that period, the Iberian pine cones and fragments of oak and pinewood that have been dated to before the shipwreck - that is to say, the objects collected by Matsumoto Shizuo, with the scientific backing of a Japanese historian, Professor Shibata, firmly indicate that the ship could really be the "Madre de Deus".
If so, it means that the detailed descriptions of where the ship sank, as given by the Jesuits who saw it, cannot be correct.
Whatever the case, Mr Matsumoto is in no doubt: this is the ship that belonged to the sea-captain André Pessoa. The revelations Our Lady made in his dreams could only have meant this and he had had no choice but to salvage the ship from the sea depths. In view of the enormous expense it represents as the fishing boat must be first removed from above her, Matsumoto has already embarked on a new battle: that of interesting institutions and thereby raising money to continue, above all else, the challenging work for itself as he wishes nothing for himself and intends to donate everything to the Nagasaki town council.
He can rely on his own tenacity, the total support of his family and friends, and perhaps that of Maria-san and Buddha - to whom he remains devoted and will surely not let a cause such as this one "shipwreck"!