Oldest-Known Shipwrecks

8 Oldest-Known Shipwrecks in History

When you hear “shipwreck,” your mind probably automatically goes to the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. While that’s certainly one of the most famous shipwrecks of the last century or so, there are several others that were also unexpected, tragic, and claimed several lives.

Over hundreds of years, there have been countless maritime accidents all around the world that were the result of both human error and circumstances beyond their control, such as the weather. Today, the shipwrecks that are well-known – and especially the ones that have been discovered – make for fascinating stories that are far less dry than what the history books contain!

Let’s take a look at eight of the oldest shipwrecks that have occurred over the years.

8. MS Estonia

Year: 1994
# of People Aboard: 989
Fatalities: 852
Discovered?: Yes

MS Estoniaphoto source: Wikipedia

Nearly thirty years ago, the MS Estonia – a cruiseferry built in 1980 – unexpectedly sunk in the Baltic Sea, claiming the lives of over 800 people. To this day, there is speculation over what exactly caused this major maritime incident. It is believed that rough weather was to blame, which would have been the catalyst for the bow door separating from the vessel, pulling the ramp ajar and leading to flooding.

What happened with the remains of the MS Estonia were controversial at the time. Relatives of the deceased demanded that the ship be raised, so that they could potentially find their loved ones and give them a land burial. The Swedish government, however, decided to bury the vessel by dropping thousands of tons of sediment on the site.

As of 1995, the burial site of the Estonia has been formally designated a “sea grave.” Exploration of the site is prohibited.

Did You Know?

There is a memorial of the sinking of the MS Estonia in Tallinn, which consists of a plaque listing the names of the dead and two arc statues that point back to the city. It is situated near the harbor.

7. Empress of Ireland

Year: 1914
# of People Aboard: 1,477
Fatalities: 1,012
Discovered?: Yes

Empress of Irelandphoto source: Wikipedia

The Empress of Ireland is certainly a powerful and majestic-sounding name for a ship! Unfortunately, this Canadian vessel sank on its 1914 voyage to Liverpool after colliding with a Norwegian collier in thick fog, killing over one thousand people. It is considered one of the worst Canadian maritime disasters to date, or “Canada’s Titanic.”

The story goes as follows: in the early hours of May 29, 1914, the lookout stationed in the crow’s nest saw the light that The Storstad – a Norwegian coal ship – gave off. Before the captain could react, the surrounding fog became so thick that visibility was impossible. The resulting collision of the two ships proved fatal.

Out of 1,477 passengers, just 465 survived the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. The event is still commemorated each year in Canada with free tours of the ship, and with a monument that stands at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto.

Did You Know?

The remains of the Empress of Ireland currently sit in 130 ft. of water in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec. It is considered a National Historic Site on the Canadian Register.

6. Titanic

Year: 1912
# of People Aboard: 2,240
Fatalities: ~1,500
Discovered?: Yes

Titanicphoto source: Unsplash

Here, we have the shipwreck to end all shipwrecks – perhaps the most famous of all time, anywhere or any time in the world: the Titanic.

Most know bits and pieces of the story: on April 10, 1912, the newly-constructed Titanic luxury liner set off on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Its final destination was New York City, but the ship never made it to North America. About 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, the Titanic crashed into a massive iceberg and sank in less than three hours. Around 1,500 lives were lost.

Today, the Titanic is most widely-known for its 1997 award-winning movie, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The pop culture reference to the historical event is probably one of the reasons why the Titanic disaster is so renowned, despite being comparable to other wrecks.

Did You Know?

When completed, the Titanic was considered the largest-ever manmade object. The ship was 882 feet long by 92 feet wide, and from keel to bridge, it was 106 feet high and 175 feet to the top of the stacks. These impressive stats were part of the reason why, ironically, the Titanic was deemed “unsinkable.”

5. HMS Victory

Year: 1744
# of People Aboard: Unclear
Fatalities: 1,100
Discovered?: Yes

HMS Victoryphoto source: Wikipedia

The HMS Victory sank in 1744 in the English Channel. It was not the ship’s first voyage.

Originally launched in 1737, the Victory was a British naval ship that became the flagship of the Channel Fleet under Sir John Norris. She was wrecked seven years later on a voyage back to Britain under Admiral Sir John Balchen, when a large storm did her in. The Victory wreck resulted in 1,100 lives lost, making it one of the worst British maritime incidents in history.

The ship was finally discovered in 2009 after being lost at sea for 265 years. The remains are treated respectfully as the final resting place of the 1,000+ souls that were lost centuries ago.

Did You Know?

After the Victory was discovered, there was much controversy (and even legal proceedings) over how the artifacts found in the wreck would be handled. While the question of whether they should be sold arose, it was ultimately decided that they would be housed in a major UK museum to educate the general public.

4. Spanish Armada

Year: 1588
# of People Aboard: ~30,000
Fatalities: ~20,000
Discovered?: Yes

Spanish Armadaphoto source: historic-uk.com

Perhaps a recognizable name to many, the Spanish Armada set sail in 1588 with around 30,000 people aboard, and was wrecked in the rough seas of Kinnagoe Bay. The ship wouldn’t be discovered until 1971 by divers of the city of Derry.

The divers knew the famed Spanish ship had likely sunk in that specific area, so when they discovered the wreckage and noticed artillery with the coat of arms of Philip II, they were sure they’d come across the 400-year-old Armada.

The Armada originally set sail with one mission: to overthrow the Protestant rule over England (headed by Queen Elizabeth I). The goal was to restore Catholicism to Great Britain. As such, the ship’s cargo included 180 priests and 14,000 barrels of wine. However, the Armada’s mission (of course) ultimately failed when British fleets attacked.

The English victory was considered divine intervention by God to protect the Protestant cause.

Did You Know?

Compared to the thousands of Spanish sailors and soldiers who died in the Armada sinking, the English lost no ships and only 100 men in battle.

3. Mary Rose

Year: 1545
# of People Aboard: ~500
Fatalities: 35
Discovered?: Yes

Mary Rosephoto source: Maryrose.org

Prior to its 1545 sinking, the Mary Rose was actually a successful frigate for Henry VIII of England for 34 years. It went down in the Battle of Solent – the French retaliation for Boulogne – as the king watched from his castle.

When the Mary Rose went down, there were attempt to lift the ship from the very start. It was believed that the mission would be a success when divers were sent to attach cables to the masts of the ship. These cables would then be attached to other ships that would sail in opposite directions, bringing the Mary Rose to the surface of the water. Unfortunately, the mission failed, as did subsequent missions to raise the king’s beloved vessel.

After 437 years, the Mary Rose was finally lifted in an operation watched by 60 million people around the world. Recovery was possible with a team of divers, archaeologists, and scientists.

Did You Know?

The artifacts discovered in the wreckage of the Mary Rose are unique, offering an extensive amount of new insight into naval equipment and warfare of the Tudor era.

2. Kublai Khan’s Shipwrecks

Year: 1281
# of People Aboard: ~140,000
Fatalities: 112,000
Discovered?: Yes

Kublai Khan’s Shipwrecksphoto source: theconversation.com

Emperor Kublai Khan of Mongolia’s shipwrecks of 1281 are some of the oldest in history. With four boats that sank in the waters off Takashima Island (near Nagasaki), the wrecks were the result of a failed invasion of Japan.

At the time, Emperor Kublai Khan’s hope was to expand the Mongolian empire further into East Asia and Southeast Asia – modern-day Japan and Vietnam. With 4,400 ships and something like 140,000 troops, the king attempted his mission, but was ultimately thwarted by a two-day typhoon (also called a kamikaze). The storm destroyed an estimated 80% of his fleet.

The shipwreck was discovered by archaeologists in 2001 near southern China. 14 years later, another of the four ships would be discovered near the island of Kyushu.

Did You Know?

There was an entire podcast interview conducted in 2011 with one of the leading Kublai Khan archeologists. You can access it here.

1. Dokos

Year: 2,700 – 2,200 B.C.
# of People Aboard: Unknown
Fatalities: Unknown
Discovered?: Yes

Dokosphoto source: Wikipedia

The Dokos shipwreck is the oldest-known maritime incident to date. Though there is not as much available research on the wreck, archaeologists have uncovered ancient artifacts (pictured above) from the tragedy that have been traced to a 500-year window between 2,200 B.C. and 2,700 B.C. This is known as the Proto-Helladic period.

The remains of the Dokos wreck were discovered in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Southern Greece (Dokos Island is just 60 miles east of Sparta). Though the vessel itself has long ago dissolved in the water, clay artifacts remain, telling the tale of the ship and its people. Over a three-year period (1989-1992), Dr. George Papathansopolous was the leading archaeologist on the site of the wreck, performing an extensive excavation of the ancient Dokos tragedy.

Did You Know?

The cargo that was uncovered and associated with Dokos is the largest collection of Helladic pottery to date. It was all impressively made before the invention of the pottery wheel.




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