Armenian Reporter: Friday June 05, 2009
by Emil Sanamyan
Near Catalina Island, Dominican Republic - This has been a mystery three centuries in the making.
Burned and scuttled off the coast of this former Spanish colony, an Armenian merchant ship captured by British privateer Captain William Kidd has since become the stuff of legend and an elusive prize for treasure hunters.
Since it was accidentally found in December 2007, the researchers involved have called Quedagh Merchant an unprecedented discovery of its kind in recent history. They are now working on ascertaining the vessel's identity and on the creation of a unique museum.
An international mystery
According to British records, Kidd captured the Quedagh Merchant (also known as Cara Merchant) in January 1698 from Armenian traders near the coast of India and then sailed on it to the Caribbean.
In 1701, after a two-year public trial in London, Kidd was hanged to his death on charges of murder and piracy - charges based in main part on testimony from the Armenian vessel's owners.
Seeking to bury the evidence after looting much of its precious cargo, Kidd's associates set the ship on fire and sunk it in 1699. Subsequent efforts sanctioned by the British Crown to find the vessel and its cargo and compensate the Armenians proved fruitless.
The story of the missing ship became an obsession for numerous historians and explorers in the West. Among Armenians, however, the Quedagh Merchant - like much of the Armenian maritime heritage - has remained virtually unknown.
To this day, few Armenian studies of the subject have been attempted. One of these few was a Russian-language paper by Yuri Barsegov, a Moscow professor with expertise in maritime law, published in an obscure academic journal in 1984.
"When I first heard of this Armenian ship in early 2007, I thought to myself: right, this is just another fable that Armenians like to brag about among themselves," recalled Pavel Galoumian, who together with his wife Isabella Agad, was recognized at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo on June 1 at an event dedicated to the discovery of the shipwreck.
But after checking British sources, Mr. Galoumian learned that the Armenian provenance of the vessel was well-documented. Having since gone through a mountain of literature on the Quedagh Merchant, he argues that its significance goes far beyond public excitement about pirates and treasures.
"Much sought-after internationally, this vessel represents a highly significant but little-studied chapter of Armenian history," Mr. Galoumian told the Armenian Reporter.
In fact, from the 17th century and well into the 18th, at the dawn of the modern era, Armenian diaspora communities in Iran and India dominated commerce between Asia and Europe that, in its significance for the world economy, can be compared to trade between the United States and China today. (See a forthcoming story on the subject in the Armenian Reporter.)
A search for Armenian treasure
Passion for Armenian history and adventure turned the Galoumians - he a physicist who had worked at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva and she a professional translator - into born-again sea explorers.
Natives of landlocked Armenia and Switzerland, respectively, Mr. and Mrs. Galoumian purchased a yacht and decided to embark on a fresh search for the elusive Quedagh Merchant.
They joined with sea enthusiasts from Yerevan's Ayas Nautical Research Club led by Karen Balayan, who in 2004-6 had sailed around Europe in a replica of the 13th-century Armenian vessel Kilikia.
In a sketch, "The Quest for the Armenian vessel: Quedagh Merchant," prepared in March 2007, Ayas members said that beginning that December they would undertake an expedition to the Caribbean Sea aboard a 46-foot yacht, Anahit, sailing under the flag of the Republic of Armenia.
Mr. Galoumian admits that the chances that their four-person team could find the three-century-old relic underwater were slim.
"But we thought we would ask the local population, focusing primarily on the area between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, specifically the uninhabited islet of Mona, where Quedagh Merchant was known to have been hiding at one point, and see what we could find," Mr. Galoumian remembered.
But just days after the Anahit sailed from the United States came the stunning news reports.
Researchers from University of Indiana (IU), acting on a tip to Dominican officials from a local resident, found what appeared to be the long-lost Quedagh Merchant. (By then, the IU team had been doing archeological work in the waters of the Dominican Republic for 15 years.)
"We felt shock." Mr. Galoumian was candid about his first reaction. "I felt like a dog that lost a bone he didn't know he could have."
But when the Anahit crew made contact with the American team, they began to collaborate. The Armenian Nautical Association has since become one of the main sponsors of the research effort.
Examining the discovery
In the past 18 months, the IU team, led by Professor Charles Beeker, has been examining the wreck. They have identified at least 26 cannons and what may be the vessel's wooden keel. One cannon has since been removed from the water for lab examination.
Evidence gathered so far, the general location of the wreck, and the location of the cannons - which were piled together to force the burning vessel underwater - are consistent with contemporary descriptions of the Quedagh Merchant's last sighting off the coast of the present-day Dominican Republic.
Researchers are also looking to see whether the ship is made of teak, a hardwood common to parts of India near the port of Surat, where the vessel was reportedly built.
"Additionally, Captain Kidd testified that Cara Merchant had fully rebidded seams - that means tongue and groove joining. So that's another thing we are looking for," noted John Foster, a senior archeologist from California State Parks Administration and also a senior member of the IU team.
Much of the wreck remains buried and it is so far unclear whether any of the ship's original cargo - such as rock sugar - was left on it and has, in some form, survived the fire and water.
Prof. Beeker says that mounting evidence is pointing toward a strong probability that the shipwreck they found is the Armenian merchant vessel captured by Kidd.
Also underway is historical research.
Fritz Hanselmann, an IU graduate student and a member of the research team, noted the need for additional research from Armenian sources.
"We have conducted archival research in the British Library and Public Records Office in the [British] National Archives," Mr. Hanselmann told the Armenian Reporter. "What we are lacking is information from Armenian sources pertaining to the owner of the ship and his dealings with other merchants and the British East India Company" before it was captured by Kidd.
Establishing a "living museum"
Last year, the IU team received a 0,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with a mandate to work with the Dominican government and others and turn the shipwreck into a "living museum" - living remnants of the Armenian ship in its final resting place.
When completed, the museum would be open to snorkelers and divers. Considering the existing tourist flow to the Dominican Republic and the unique attractions of a pirate shipwreck, the new museum is likely to become a major attraction.
The June 1 event at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo highlighted progress on the project so far and brought together senior members of the Dominican government and the local diplomatic corps.
One of the most enthusiastic participants was British ambassador to the Dominican Republic Ian Worthington, himself a diver who had already visited the underwater site.
"This is a marvelous discovery and the efforts to bring an international quality [should contribute] to the project's longevity," Mr. Worthington told the Armenian Reporter.
"This is Dominican patrimony, but there is also a link to my country, because Kidd was Scottish; there is an obvious link to Armenia and to India; and overall this is a unique project," he added.
At the event, Mr. Galoumian shared a similar vision of "a cross-cultural center" on Catalina Island near the find that would highlight the history of all nations involved in the Quedagh Merchant.
See the National Geographic Channel's program about the discovery.