Conceição – Our new book

Posted by Maddy Labels:

 The Sad Story of the Conceição – Published by the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT)

Sometimes I wonder at the surprising turns that life takes. I was researching for material to add meat to the article that I was preparing on Deigo Garcia and chanced upon a site related to the Chagos Archipelago, where I found an old copy of ‘Chagos News’. In there, I did not find much on Diego Garcia as such, but I chanced on an article by Nigel Wenban-Smith, on the sinking of an India-bound Portuguese Nau called Conceição (Conception) in 1555. Intrigued, I read it up and when I saw that it was about a shipwreck among those islands, I became very interested, desiring to get to the bottom of the story. This was in my wheelhouse, so to say, and melded with the many Portuguese studies I had made, while at the same time being on the fringes of the Diego Garcia research. I obtained a copy of the survivor Rangel’s account of the shipwreck in Portuguese, but an online translation did not prove to be very helpful.

As I had worked on a couple of shipwreck stories before this, I had a vague idea of the sailing routines and how complex it was in those days. Remember there was no GPS, no good maps (it was just 7 years after Vasco Da Gama had made it to Malabar), or dependable sailing instructions to Cochin. Sailing was still done using celestial navigation, with astrolabes, and assisted by clues provided by mother nature (color of water, flight of birds, etc.). I decided to contact the author of the article in the Chagos News and was pleasantly surprised to receive a detailed and quick reply from him, stating that his research into the wreck was incomplete and wondering if we could make something out of it, together. Preying on his mind was a question - did the ship get wrecked in the Chagos or further North?

Without hesitation, I agreed, and this was amid the Pandemic years, July 2021, to be precise. The subsequent long-distance collaboration across the Atlantic, over 120 emails, resulted in our ending up as coauthors of the newly published book – The Sad Story of The Conceição.

A bit about Nigel my coauthor - Nigel Wenban-Smith’s career in the British Diplomatic Service (Ireland, Belgium, Canada, East Africa, Malawi) included a spell as Commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory in the early 1980s. This sparked his interest in the conservation of the Chagos Archipelago, which led to his involvement, after retirement, in the Friends of the Chagos (now the Chagos Conservation Trust), including six years as its chairman. Over the past decade, he has turned his attention increasingly to the archipelago's little-known history.

While Nigel concentrated on a proper translation of Rangel’s account and the arrangement of the book itself, I provided the background to the voyage, the portions connected to the Portuguese trade with Calicut & Cochin, the India run, the establishment of Estado da India, etc. Careful checking of the account of Rangel and the maps of that period, to zoom in on potential locations where the ship was wrecked, became our final task.

The Chagos News (Feb 2023) introduced the upcoming book thus - The earlier Chagos: A History, explained: “Unfortunately, Jesuit records shed no light whatsoever on where exactly the Conceição went aground, how the survivors found their way to India, or how many perished”. The new book brings new clarity to those far-off events. And the survivor Manoel Rangel’s hardships and courage in tackling them provide a fascinating read in their own right – his account also offers clues as to the wreck site…

However, as in all good detective stories, his clues point in different directions, while learned commentators disagree with one another on practically every point. To thicken the plot, modern experts, deeply familiar with the seas concerned, pounce on each solution the authors propose. As if this were not enough, Rangel’s numbers challenge Manmadhan and Wenban-Smith’s attempt to provide an accurate body count.

I am sure readers will share our excitement as we follow the course of the ill-fated ship and the travails of its hapless passengers.

The book will soon be available for purchase in the UK, please visit the Chagos Conservation Trust website below. Presumably, it will be available in India and the US, sometime in the future. Check for ordering at – Link and Link

We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it. 

A note about the Chagos Archipelago - Chagos, about 315 miles south of Maldives, was forgotten for a while, after the Cold War. But its importance is growing due to changing geopolitical balances, while at the same time, the actions of the British in the past are being questioned, especially the fate of the native Chagossians who were expelled and relocated to Mauritius. Britain was gradually dismantling its empire in the 60s and during discussions over the independence of Mauritius, they acquired 58 remote islands comprising the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. This then came to be known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Between 1968 and 1973 the island population was expelled, and the area was leased to the US. The Chagos Islands were a strategic spot from which they maintained a strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. Diego Garcia, the largest, is now an American military base. While the UK represents the territory internationally, Mauritius is emphatic over their claims on the islands as well as compensation for the expelled Chagossians. These matters continue to be discussed, disputed, and contested.


  1. Nick Balmer

    Congratulations on your new book. Having corresponded with you since 2007, on lots of shared interests in Malabar history, I know just how good your knowledge of the local history of the area is.
    Your ability to bridge the divide between western historians, and Indian regional local historians is very great.
    My own work in Malabar would be far less well informed than it has become due to your work.
    I really look forward to reading you book.
    If it is as well researched as your blog posts are it will be really good.

  1. Maddy

    Thank you very much Nick,
    I am truly gratified to read your comment, and I do hope you enjoy the little book. I promise you bigger and meatier releases on other topics soon.

    I have no hesitation in adding that you have given me so many pointers and helped me along with various research topics, more than you would imagine..all in connection to writing about the land our forefathers tread.. once upon a long time ago...

  1. Maddy

    And Nick,
    Of course, a number of us are eagerly looking forward to your book...