500 year-old shipwreck loaded with gold found in Namibian desert by Walt Bonner |
Published Fox News - June 07, 2016
miners recently discovered a ship that went down 500 years
ago after draining a man-made lagoon on Namibia’s coast.
While shipwrecks are often found along Africa’s Skeleton
Coast, this one just so happened to be loaded with $13,000,000
worth of gold coins.
It also answers a centuries–old mystery
and is what some archaeologists are calling one of the most
significant shipwrecks ever found.
The wreck was first discovered along the
coast near Oranjemund by geologists from the mining company
De Beers in April 2008. One reason it took centuries to
find is because it was underneath the ocean floor.
mining site concerned was actually located in the surf zone,
where the violent action of the waves theoretically made
mining impossible,” archaeologist Dr. Dieter Noli told FoxNews.com.
“So what the chaps do is push up a huge sea-wall with bulldozers
parallel to the beach, with the ends running back to the
beach. The result is a large man-made lagoon, with the surf
pounding on the outside. Then they pump the sea-water out
of the lagoon.”
It was in this drained lagoon
that the wreck was discovered. Noli, who is chief archaeologist
of the Southern Africa Institute of Maritime Archaeological
Research, wasn’t too surprised– with the abundance of shipwrecks
on the coast (Portuguese sailors once called it “The Gates
of Hell”), he knew the geologists would turn up something
sooner or later.
“Having first started doing
archaeological work…for the mine in 1996, I had at that
point been preaching to them for a dozen years that ‘one
day’ they would find a shipwreck, and to let me know when
they do,” he told Foxnews.com. “When asked what exactly
I was really expecting to find, I said ‘a Spanish sword
and a bag of gold.’”
day after the discovery, the geologists notified Noli that
they’d found some ‘strange stuff’ on the beach– bits of
metal, wood, copper half-spheres and what looked like copper
or bronze pipes. They emailed him an image of one of the
“pipes,” which Noli immediately recognized to be a piece
of 16th century artillery.
“I phoned [Chief geologist Juergen Jacob]
back and told him that said pipes were in fact rather old
breech-loading cannons. ‘How old?’ he wanted to know. ‘1535,
give or take two months,’ I suggested. Since the ship wound
up being from 1533, that was a pretty close guess!”
While there are plenty of shipwrecks in
the area, almost all of them are “recent”– as in having
sunk only in the last 120 years or so. The oldest shipwreck
found in the area at that point was The Vlissingen, which
went ashore in Meob Bay in 1747.
Upon his arrival to the site, Noli realized
pretty quickly this new find would be the oldest one yet.
“Once [there], the copper half-spheres had
me flummoxed,” he said. “But then I saw the wooden stock
of a matchlock musket lying at my feet. Picking it up, I
saw that the style of the stock – made to fit against the
cheek, rather than against the shoulder – indicated that
it was from the early century, matching the age of the cannons.
Right then I knew that we had a ship from the early 16th
century and that there would be a lot to find in very good
nick, because if the stock of a musket survived, a LOT of
other stuff would have done so as well.”
Once they realized what they had on their
hands, Noli went about trying to convince the Namdeb Corp.
to let them work more on the site– no easy task, considering
the huge cost of keeping the site dry for two weeks beyond
the mining period and maintaining the sea-wall, which is
a 24/7 job for two D-9 dozers, a fleet of trucks and some
really huge pumps. In the end, he simply let the pictures
of spoils from the dig do the talking.
According to Noli, “As luck would have it,
we found the treasure chest on day six. Academic arguments
are all very well, but once you have literally filled your
hat with an 25.5 lb mixture of Spanish and Portuguese gold
coins (there were indeed swords as well), the value of the
site is no longer in doubt.”
The ship was identified as The Bom Jesus,
or “The Good Jesus”, a Portuguese ship that went missing
500 years ago while en route to India. The ship was loaded
down with gold, tin, ivory tusks, and 44,000 pounds of copper
ingots when it apparently went to its watery grave. In fact,
it was the copper ingots that ended up playing a key role
in the wreck’s preservation.
“Marine organisms may like wood, leather
book covers, peach pips, jute sacking and leather shoes,
but copper really puts them off their food – so a lot of
stuff survived the 500 years on the bottom of the sea which
should really not have done so,” Noli said. “All this adds
up to an extremely unusual situation, which led to truly
excellent preservation of an in any event unique site.”
How the ship went down and what it was doing
off a notorious stretch of coast famous for its storms and
fog remains unknown, though Noli has his theories.
He believes that a combination of too much
heavy cargo and poor weather made the captain decide to
run the vessel ashore by putting out his bow anchors and
slowly beaching her. The ship then hit a blinder in the
surf zone, where she heeled over in the pounding waves.
All attempts to free her failed and she broke up, starting
with the superstructure.
“The treasure chest fell free from the captain’s
cabin, sinking intact to the seabed, where it was subsequently
crushed, pinned down and protected by a massive piece of
the side of the ship which broke free from the disintegrating
hull,” Noli theorized.
As for what it was doing off the coast,
he’s hoping Portuguese records may shine some light on the
So who gets the gold?
“The Namibian government – every single
coin,” he said. “That is the normal procedure when a ship
is found on a beach. The only exception is when it is a
ship of state – then the country under whose flag the ship
was sailing gets it and all its contents. And in this case
the ship belonged to the King of Portugal, making it a ship
of state – with the ship and its entire contents belonging
to Portugal. The Portuguese government, however, very generously
waived that right, allowing Namibia to keep the lot.”