Santa Maria hijacking

Santa Maria hijacking

Contrary to popular belief, the Santa Maria hijacking is not "piracy" because it does not fit the international definition of piracy involving an attack of one vessel on another for private ends. Also known as Operation Dulcinea, the code name given it by its chief architect and "leader" Henrique Galvão, it was a rebel terrorist operation against the Government of Portugal that occurred on January 23, 1961, when a group of Portuguese and Spanish opposition movement members seized control of the 609-foot-long (186 m), 20,900-ton Portuguese luxury cruise liner Santa Maria.

Owned by the Lisbon-based Companhia Colonial, the ship was the second largest ship in the Portuguese merchant navy at the time and along with her sister ship, the 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 January 23, 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 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 Spain under Franco.

The rebels boarded the ship in La Guaira in Venezuela and in 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, Mario Simoes 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...some of which contained USMC infantry belonging to "G" Company, 2nd Battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment out of Camp Lejeuen, NC...under the command of Rear Admiral Allen E. Smith short-circuited Galvao's plans, when his forces surrounded the "Santa Maria" some fifty miles offshore of Recife, Brazil. The following day, Admiral Smith left his flag ship the USS Gearing DD-710 and proceeded via launch to the "Santa Maria" to engage in negotiations with Galvão.

Because of an anticipated change of Presidencies in Brazil...the incoming President being more symphathetic to Galvao's political interests, it was not until the very next day that the "Santa Maria," surrounded by United States naval vessels, entered the harbor of Recife, Brazil. There, Galvão and his 24 leftist terrorists surrendered the "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. Galvao'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. [1]
  • Pereira, Anthony W., "The Neglected Tragedy: The Return to War in Angola, The Journal of Modern African Studies", Vol. 32, No. 1. (Mar., 1994), pp. 1–28.[2]
  • New York, N.Y.: Jan 24, 1961. p. 1 (2 pages)
  • Szulc, Tad, "Tugs Carry Out Debarkation at Retire"; The New York Times.


  • 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, Publicacoes Dom Quixote 1991, p. 173-183.
  • Henry A. Zeiger: The Seizing of the Santa Maria, New York (Popular Library) 1961.

External links

  • Portugal's Santa Maria
  • [3]
  • [4] Aerial photos and more concerning the US naval force taking of the pirated "Santa Maria."
  • [5] Admiral Smith designating Galvão's actions as "piracy."

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