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Deep discovery

A recently unearthed wreckage of a ship that went down in Lake Ontario in 1803 has an India connection

Indira Kannan 

It must have been a dark and stormy night. We don't know for sure, but what we do know is that this story didn't end well for the Lady Washington over two centuries ago. What we also know is that India turns up in the unlikeliest of places. On November 6, 1803, the Washington, a rare 18th-century built sloop, set sail on Lake Ontario from Kingston to Niagara in what is now Canada when it was caught in a fierce storm and sank to the bed of the Great Lake. Along with its crew and passengers, including some local merchants, the ship took down with it a load of cargo from India. The Washington's fate was long inferred, but confirmed this month by a team of American veteran shipwreck explorers Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski and Roland Stevens. The group of retirees from the Rochester area in upstate New York announced that they had located the shipwreck off the town of Oswego, New York, in late June using "high resolution side scan sonar equipment". Their work was sponsored by the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio. This is the second-oldest confirmed shipwreck found in the Great Lakes. Neither Canada nor India existed as nation states as we know them today when the Washington set off on its last voyage, but the British, who ruled over both territories, were the common link. In an interview, Kennard said the cargo was likely to have arrived from India to England, and then to Canada, where it would have been sent down the St Lawrence river to Montreal, and onward to Kingston, from where the Washington was to carry it to Niagara. Much of the cargo was what was described as "goods and groceries from East India" and valued at about $20,000. Kennard said, "I think you could speculate that some of the goods sent from East India may have been spices and things like that because what they were doing was they were transporting furs from the Midwest up through Kingston and Montreal to the UK and on the way back it was more general merchandise for the settlers in that area." According to Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes, the area around the Great Lakes was just beginning to be settled at that time.

The city of Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, was founded in 1796. "I will flat out admit that I was surprised by what this (ship) was carrying because I didn't know that really happened a whole lot on the Great Lakes," Sowden said. "To me the earliest of the Great Lakes trade really was similar to what it is today, which is in bulk raw cargo like wood and grain. But the Washington was built to help settle people and they needed to be settled with finished products and maybe that's why you're seeing some of those goods from India there." The only known reference to the goods is in the words of their trader himself. Quetton St George, a merchant from the Toronto area, then called York, placed an advertisement in the Upper Canada Gazette on December 10, 1803, explaining he had lost a large quantity of goods when the Washington went missing, and apologised to his customers who were to receive them. At the time, it was widely believed that the ship had headed to Oswego instead of Niagara to tide over the bad weather. The advertisement stated: "Mr St George is very sorry that he has not received his East India goods and groceries. He is sure they are at Oswego, and should they not arrive this season, they may be looked for early in the spring." This was recounted in the 1894 book, Landmarks of Toronto, by John Ross Robertson. Other merchants who had purchased the Indian goods were Messrs Robinson and Martin of Albany, New York, according to information found by Kennard. The Washington is the oldest, fully intact commercial sailing vessel that sank and has been located in the Great Lakes. But the explorers were not just searching blindly, Kennard explained, "I have a database of over 600 ships that have wrecked on Lake Ontario, but probably about 200 still exist. In the area we were searching, we knew we were going to find a shipwreck eventually. Which one we'd find first was a toss of the coin." In 2008, Kennard and his teammates also located the oldest military ship wrecked in the Great Lakes, the HMS Ontario, which was lost in 1780. Between 6,000 and 8,000 ships are estimated to have been wrecked in the Great Lakes, given the volume of traffic and adverse weather conditions the sailors had to encounter at the time without the forecasting and rescue resources available now. There may be many more pieces of India beneath the Great Lakes than we know. The video of the wreckage can be viewed on youtu.be/S0ryaxN0xZs (Courtesy www.shipwreckworld.com)

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First Published: Sat, August 27 2016. 00:24 IST
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