Santa Maria hijacking

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

On 23 January 1961, a group of Portuguese and Spanish opposition movement members seized control of Santa Maria, a 609-foot-long (186 m), 20,900-ton Portuguese luxury cruise liner. Also known as Operation Dulcinea, the code name given it by its chief architect and leader Henrique Galvão assilated in Caracas (Venezuela) since 1959, it was a rebel terrorist operation against the dictatorial Government of Portugal. The action has also been referred to as "piracy", although it does not fit the international definition of piracy involving an attack of one vessel on another for private ends.


Owned by the Lisbon-based Companhia Colonial de Navegação, the ship was the second largest ship in the Portuguese merchant navy at the time and along with her sister ship, Vera Cruz was among the most luxurious Portuguese-flag liners of that time.

The ship was primarily used for colonial trade to the Portuguese overseas provinces of Angola and Mozambique, in Africa, and migrant transportation to Brazil. The ship's mid-Atlantic service was also viewed as rather out of the ordinary: Lisbon to Madeira, to Tenerife, to La Guaira, to Curaçao, to Havana (later San Juan), and lastly Port Everglades. The average trade for this gray-hulled ship was mostly migrants to Venezuela and the general passenger traffic.


On 23 January 1961, the ship had 600 passengers and 300 crew members. Among the passengers were men, women, children, and 24 Iberian leftists led by Portuguese military officer and politician Henrique Galvão.

Henrique Galvão was a Portuguese military officer and political foe of Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, the head of the Estado Novo regime. Galvão had carefully planned the hijacking in Caracas with the intention of waging war until Salazar was overthrown in Portugal and the overseas territories were subsequently offered independence. He planned on using the hijacking as a way to bring attention to the Estado Novo in Portugal and the related fascist regime in Francoist Spain.

The rebels boarded the ship in La Guaira (Venezuela) and in Willemstad (Curaçao), disguised as passengers, bringing aboard suitcases. The suitcases had secret compartments to hide their weapons. The rebels, along with Henrique Galvao, seized the ship, ceased all communication, and killed one officer (3rd Pilot Nascimento Costa) and wounded several others in the process of taking complete command over the ship. The rebels forced crew members, along with the captain of the ship, Mário Simões Maia, to take the ship on a different course.

The whereabouts of the ship remained unknown for several days, until a massive United States search effort by air and sea uncovered and communicated with it in Mid-Atlantic. Thereafter, a fleet of United States naval vessels, including not less than four destroyers and USS Hermitage, which carried the Marine deachment. The USMC infantry belonging to "G" Company, 2nd Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) under the command of Rear Admiral Allen E. Smith short-circuited Galvão's plans, when his forces surrounded Santa Maria some 50 miles (80 km) offshore of Recife, Brazil. The following day, Admiral Smith left his flagship, USS Gearing, and proceeded via launch to Santa Maria to engage in negotiations with Galvão.

Because of an anticipated change of Presidencies in Brazil (the incoming President Joao Goulart being more sympathetic to Galvão's political interests), it was not until the very next day that Santa Maria, surrounded by United States naval vessels, entered the harbor of Recife. There, Galvão and his 24 activists surrendered Santa Maria, 600 passengers and crew of 300 to Brazilian authorities in exchange for political asylum.

Galvão later announced that his intentions were to sail to Angola, to set up a renegade Portuguese government in opposition to Salazar. Galvão's stories of these accounts were translated into English and into a book as Santa Maria: my crusade for Portugal (New York, 1961).


  • Menefee, Samuel Pyeatt, "Terrorism at Sea: The Historical Development of an International Legal Response" in E. Ellen (ed.), Violence at Sea: An International Workshop in Maritime Terrorism (1987).
  • Shapiro, Peter. Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 2, No. 3. (Autumn, 1972), pp. 37–40.
  • Pereira, Anthony W., "The Neglected Tragedy: The Return to War in Angola", The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1. (March 1994), pp. 1–28.
  • New York, N.Y.: Jan 24, 1961. p. 1 (2 pages)[clarification needed]
  • Szulc, Tad, "Tugs Carry Out Debarkation at Retire"; The New York Times.

Further reading[edit]

  • Henrique Galvão: Santa Maria. My crusade for Portugal, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1961.
  • Chapter: O caso "Santa Maria", in: Iva Delgado/António de Figueiredo (edit.): Memórias de Humberto Delgado, Lisbon, Publicações Dom Quixote 1991, pp. 173–183.
  • Henry A. Zeiger: The Seizing of the Santa Maria, New York (Popular Library) 1961.

External links[edit]