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Ravages of the Rangoon

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On November 1, 1871, Australia-bound steamer, SS Rangoon having set sail from the Galle Harbour, hit a shoal of deadly rocks known as Kada Rocks and ran aground. 150 years later since she went down to rest on the seabed, we recapture her last moments and share the accounts of some of the best Sri Lankan divers who had been captivated by her wreck site of scenic beauty, almost losing the sense of time

By Randima Attygalle

For almost one week Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigating Company owned steamer SS Rangoon was anchored at the Galle Harbor waiting for the arrival of the SS Travencore from China. The crew and the passengers of the Australian-bound SS Rangoon were restless waiting for the SS Travencore which was carrying mail for Australian colonies. Captain Skottowe who was at the helm of the steamer too was impatient to call it a day completing his final voyage before retirement. Three days had gone by with still no Travencore anywhere in sight. The irritated local agent for the shipping line finally gave the nod for the Rangoon to sail. However, Captain Skottowe was instructed by the agent that if at all he were to sight the Travencore, the much awaited mail from China was to be transferred from it. It was November 1, 1871. Around 6 pm, finally the Rangoon left the shores of the island. Although the Travencore never reached on time, even after the Rangoon set sail, several small boats which had arrived at the Galle Harbor soon after the Rangoon had left, sped up to the vessel to transfer mail from the British-occupied Ceylon to Australia.

The steamer was now more than 2kmfrom a shoal of deadly rocks known as the Kada Rocks and a strong north-westerly current was active. In Ghosts of the Deep- Diving the shipwrecks of Sri Lanka, author Dharshana Jayawardena- techdiver and an underwater photographer documents: ‘Although marked with a beacon, they (the Kada Rocks) lurked just a few kilometres southeast of the Galle Fort, invisible to the Rangoon in the dark. It did not take long for the unpowered ship to drift, broadside towards the rocks and 25 minutes after she had set sail, the Rangoon struck the shoal somewhere aft amidships and almost immediately started taking in water.’

While below the deck of the steamer the crew frantically worked the pumps to drain the holds and stoked the coal into the boilers to keep the engines running despite a rapidly increasing water line, women and children were ordered into life boats. Amidst the chaos of transferring them to boats ‘on deck, lights, rockets and flash guns of various colours were fired to alert authorities ashore and any othervessels close enough to come to assistance.’

Jayawardena, in a dramatic account goes onto describe the mayhem: ‘However, the Travencore threw another proverbial wrench into the works. Harbor authorities who saw the lights assumed and not without some relief that the Rangoon had finally made contact with the Travencore to exchange mail!’. Seeing the distress signals, SS Berenice and the SS Sydenham came to rescue the passengers off the Rangoon. Two more vessels- SS Arrow and the SS Hercules also joined in the rescue mission. ‘The rising water levels finally put the boilers out and the engines choked to a complete stop’, writes Jayawardena. Mercifully, all passengers and the crew were

saved, but there was no chance of the SS Rangoon being towed. While the captain and the crew kept vigil, a fleet of canoes from the nearby villages raced up to the sinking vessel to plunder whatever valuables on board. While many of them were collecting anything of value that was floating around, a few more daring ones wasted no time going below decks in search of more riches.

search of more riches. ‘With startling, crackling and snapping noises her stern suddenly plunged into the sea. The stem at the bow rose towards the stars, while billows of vapour caused by escaping air, gushed out of the Rangoon like its last breath. As everyone gazed in horror, she steadily sank into the depths of the ocean and disappeared from sight. All that remained of her were the top of the three masts,’ Jayawardena’s account says. In a twist of fate, while all 58 passengers and 149 crew escaped, the only casualties were the plunderers who boarded the vessel in search of loot. Only 13 of the 700 mailbags were saved. For more than a century, the SS Rangoon lay in deep slumber in the depths of the ocean undisturbed until the divers and fishermen stumbled upon the wreck in 1986. Lying at a depth of 30m right in front of the outer Galle Harbour the wreck of the Rangoon is a scenic dive site, says Jayawardena who first dived to it in 2006, exactly 20 years after the wreck was first discovered. Among the first few divers to have explored the wreck within weeks of its discovery, was Dr. Malik Fernando, a founder member of the Sri Lanka Sub-Aqua Club and also a member of the team who helped setup the Maritime Archaeology Unit here in the early 90s.

In an account detailing his first dive to the wreck of the Rangoon and the recovery of several artefacts, Dr. Fernando says that the ship’s bell had been recovered enabling the confirmation that it was the wreck of the Rangoon, however, the bell had disappeared soon after. Soon the news of ‘a large quantity of ceramicware spilling out of a hole in the side’ reached them. These were being ‘avidly collected by local divers intent on earning a fast buck by feeding the antique shops.’ Rising early on March 16, 1986 for the dive, Dr. Fernando recollects seeing Halley’s Comet in the south-eastern sky ‘at an elevation of 45 degrees, a good omen as it turned out to be.’ Describing the first part of the wreck that came into his view ‘like the palp of an enormous squid’, the diver documents that the ‘hull of the ship itself was upright on the sand’. The enormous hole in the side of the hull at the starboard quarter was ‘spilling masses of chinaware on to the sand.’ A few years later in a follow up dive in 1988, Dr Fernando observed that the ‘ship appeared to have been flattened’. Underwater blasting of wrecks in the area in search of non-ferrous metals and blast fishing targeting the shoals which thrive in wreck sites are attributed to this sad state of affairs.

“Although the wreck of the Rangoon is quite deteriorated, it’s a spectacular dive site making a diver forego the sense of time,” says Jayawardena. The stem at the bow reminds one of an ancient Viking ship he says although the Rangoon was far from it. “It was 60 m long with a tonnage of 1,800.” The sheer beauty of the marine life replete with soldier fish, glass fish, rabbit fish, grey snappers and bluefin trevally often distract a diver from focusing on the wreck says Jaywardena who had dived there several times. Sri Lanka can be termed the ‘shipwreck capital of South Asia’ says the explorer. “With over 100 shipwrecks dotting its coast, and many of them providing a great wreck diving experience, Sri Lanka leads the scene even surpassing the wreck diving experiences offered by countries such as the Maldives, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In this context, the SS Rangoon is valuable to the country historically as well as from a tourism revenue generation point of view,” observes Jayawardena.

The Rangoon is among the eight shipwrecks found in Galle which could be accessed for recreational diving and is also the oldest ‘visible’ wreck among them, says Rasika Muthucumarana, Maritime Archaeologist from the Maritime Archaeology Unit of the Central Cultural Fund in Galle. “Most of the older shipwrecks dating back to the Dutch period are buried and are not visible to the recreational diver and they are only of archaeological importance. The Rangoon on the other hand is an important wreck for it has not only a recreational value but also a historical and a tourism value. It is also very rich in marine life.”

Lying on a clear, sandy bottom, the Rangoon is also considered an ‘ideal wreck’ because most of its components are still clearly identifiable says the Marine Archaeologist. “Her bow, anchor, stern, propeller and the mast are still visible.” Sadly, however, a good proportion of Rangoon’s bow was damaged last year when a ship was anchored on it, says Muthucumarana who calls for better awareness among the law implementing agencies about these shipwrecks which are not only an integral part of marine archaeology but also a vital tourism-generating source.

Pic credit: Rasika

Muthucumarana, Dr Malik

Fernando, Ghosts of the

Deep- Diving the shipwrecks of

Sri Lanka



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Olu Swim Week

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Olu Swim Week Colombo is Asia’s first swim fashion platform, showcasing the best of Sri Lankan, regional and international swim wear designers.

A brainchild of Ajay Vir Singh Managing director of Colombo Fashion Week, Colombo Swim Week luxury wear collection aims to create a global platform for local designers and create a benchmark for Sri Lanka as the swimwear capital of the world. The golden beaches, the beautiful greenary, gushing waterfalls are an ideal location for in Sri Lanka to showcase this luxury collection

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On the second say Olu swimwear was held at the Port city against the backdrop of stunning skyscapers and yatchs.

Pix by Dharmasena Welipitiya

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Galadari Colombo has launched “Nelum Kole Rice” promotion at lunchtime at the Blue Lotus restaurant every Sunday from 12 noon to 3.00 pm, a press release announced.

A range of traditional rice served on a lotus leaf such as “Olu Rice”, Kuruluthuda Rice”, “Suwandel” and much more is on offer with a selection of fish, prawns, chicken, beef, mutton and a choice of three vegetables cooked in authentic village style. A vegetarian option is also available.

This is topped with a range of desserts including traditional favorites with a modern twist. Included are ginger pudding, beli cream mousse and curd cake and treacle.

Pic by Dharmasena Welipitiya

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Christmas cake mixing by Grand Kandyan

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The grand Kandyan is getting ready for their Christmas cake with a variety of spices, essences, liquor and flavorings. before the actual baking takes place a press release said.

The release also said the hotel was adhering to the safety rules of Covid 19 and maintaining the highest level of hygiene. The staff joined the rituals of pouring and mixing ingredients with much enthusiasm and fun, looking forward to an exciting festive season.

The release also said ‘make sure you join us with your loved ones for the seasonal programmes, and take the opportunity to taste our cake’.

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