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Hijack on the High Seas

Posted in Adventure, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Sea, Ships on Monday, 31 January 2011

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“Leave me alone, or I’ll scuttle the ship” – these words sparked off a rescue mission to save hundreds of passengers trapped on a luxury liner

As the luxury liner Santa Maria sailed out of Lisbon at the beginning of January, 1961, her 600 passengers – including children from Portugal, Spain, and South and North America – looked forward to a month of uninterrupted shipboard fun and enjoyment.

They were going on a costly winter cruise, which would take them to the West Indies, Brazil, Florida, and back again to Lisbon. Everyone hoped to get a suntan and by Sunday, 22nd January, the vessel had entered the blue waters off the island of Martinique.

Suddenly, as the daily shipboard routine began, a group of armed and uniformed men forced their way onto the bridge and pointed machine-guns at the office-in-charge.

Ignoring the threat, the senior officer tried to give the alarm. For his courage, he was shot in the back and killed. The purser was also shot at in the struggle and was seriously wounded. At this, the rest of the officers and men surrendered.

At gunpoint, they were told to change course and make for an unstated destination. While they did so, the leader of the take-over group – an elderly, distinquished-looking man – went to see the master of the liner, Captain Simoes Maia, who was resting in his cabin. He introduced himself as Captain Henrique Galvao, one of his country’s most notorious men.

Galvao had long opposed the dictatorship of Portugal’s leader, Dr Antonio Salazar, and had been imprisoned for 15 years for his “subversive activities”. Two years previously he had escaped from the prison hospital, and had been on the run ever since. Captain Maia knew of this but was astounded when Galvao – who until that morning had appeared to be just another passenger – announced:

“I have seized your ship for propaganda purposes. I wish to draw the world’s attention to the plight of Portugal and her repressed people. What I have done today will be hailed as the act of a saviour!”

Two days after the coup 65-year-old Galvao broadcast over the ship’s radio. His voice throbbing with pride, he announced that he had seized the Santa Maria as his personal flagship and man-of-war. He meant no harm to the passengers and hoped not to have to kill or injure any more of the 300-strong crew.

“This is my first move in a bid to overthrow the dictator of Portugal, Dr Salazar,” he said. “If I am left alone then all will be well. However, if there is any attempt to pursue the liner, and to try to recapture her, then I shall be forced to scuttle her.”

His broadcast – “to all free and civilized nations” – certainly caught the world’s attention, but not in the way he had intended. Despite his threat to scuttle the vessel, an international rescue operation was launched, led by the British Frigate, HMS Rothesay, and by two United States destroyers.

There was enough food and drink aboard the liner to last for several days. But it was obvious that Galvao would soon have to put in somewhere to take on fresh supplies. He had already allowed six members of the crew to launch a lifeboat and take themselves – and the dead officer and wounded purser – ashore to the British Windward Islands.

However, there was no definite guarantee that the remaining 900 or so men, women and children would be set free. In Portugal, 73-year-old Dr Salazar (who later retired from power in 1968, two years before his death) branded Galvao as a “criminal and an outlaw”, and hoped that he would be “caught and treated like any other pirate”.

But, as the rescue ships homed in on Martinique, the Santa Maria disappeared, apparantly off the face of the Atlantic Ocean. For the next 24 hours there was neither sight nor sound of her, and the authorities wondered if the rebel loader had actually carried out his threat and scuttled the 20,000-ton ship.

Then, on 25th January – three days after its capture – the missing liner was spotted by a patrol aircraft of the United States Navy. She was heading in the general direction of South America and, from the air, the armed pirates could be seen patrolling the decks.

But, by this time, the rescuers were keeping the vessel under constant surveillance. Her south-westerly course was followed on large-scale maps and the Commander-in-Chief of the US Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Robert Dennison, sent a carefully-worded signal to Galvao. In it, he pleaded that the passengers be set free at a specially-chosen port. Then a “peace conference” could be set up aboard the liner, attended by Admiral Allen Smith of the US Navy.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, Galvao agreed to this and even invited Admiral Smith to come aboard before the passengers were released. The Santa Maria was close to the north Brazilian port and naval station of Recife when the admiral and the pirate chief began an intense three-hour conference.

Throughout it, the liner was shadowed by a tug containing more than a hundred reporters and photographers from every part of the globe. The newspaper stories spoke of “life under the modern skull-and-crossbones,” and two enterprising French journalists tried to parachute onto the ship’s deck.

A high wind carried them into the sea and Galvao gave the order for them to be rescued. They were pulled aboard the liner soaked to the skin, but jubilant at the prospect of obtaining an exclusive interview with the “sea-jacker” and so scooping the world.

As soon as the conference ended, Galvao saw the two reporters and told them of his decision. He would sail into Recife, send the passengers ashore, and then await his punishment. “The rescuers are too much and too many for me,” he said. “I cannot go on playing catch-me-if-you-can with the American Navy. The seven seas are not big enough for that.”

Escorted by four American destroyers, the Santa Maria docked at Recife on February 1. So, twelve days after their capture, the passengers’ ordeal ended and they were greeted on the quayside by cheering crowds, brass bands, and platoons of Brazilian soldiers and marines.

As for Captain Galvao, his rebellion was over and he was sent to live in exile in the north Brazilian industrial city of Belo Horizonte. “Doubtless I shall now end as I began,” he wrote. “Poor, liberal . . . and reliant upon my love of humanity and my hatred of all brands of tyranny and oppression.”

This edited article originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 901 published on 28 April 1979. Click on a picture to find out more about licensing images for commercial or personal/educational use. We are also able to license textual material. Please contact us for details.

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