The Diamond Shipwreck

History rarely unfolds like a fable. But consider this: A 16th century Portuguese trading vessel, carrying a fortune in gold and ivory ad bound for a famed spice port on the coast of India is blown far off course by a fierce storm while trying to round the southern tip of Africa. Days later battered and broken the ship founders on a mysterious fog-bound coast sprinkled with more than a hundred million carats in diamonds, a cruel mockery of the sailors’ dreams of riches. None of the castaways ever return home.

This improbable yarn would have been lost forever had it not been for the astonishing discovery of a shipwreck in the beach sands of the Sperrgebeit, the fabulously rich, and famously off-limits, De Beers mining lease near the mouth of the Orange River, on Namibia’s south coast.

A company geologist carrying out some field work in mining area U-60 came across what he at first took to be a oddly rounded lump of quartzite near an outcrop of pre-Cambrian schist.  Curious, he picked it up, and as he turned the heavy thing over in his hands he noticed a strange trident-shaped mark on its weathered surface.  Archaeologists would later establish that this was the hallmark of Anton Fugger, one of Renaissance Europe’s wealthiest financiers, and that these oversized paperweights were solid copper ingots used by merchants to trade for spices in the Indies in the first half of the 16thcentury.  They would also find another twenty tonnes of these ingots hidden beneath the sand, and so much else besides.

To a layman steeped in stories of sunken galleons and lost treasure, it sounds like some Boy’s Ownbeachcombing fantasy come true: finding cannons and cutlasses, ivory and astrolabes, muskets and chain mail, chess knights, rosary beads, pewter tankards, anchors, daggers – thousands of artefacts in all.  And gold, of course, lots of gold, hundreds of beautiful, rare, heavy old coins – Spanish excellentes, mainly, bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Isabella, but with a smattering of Venetian, Moorish and French as well, and the exquisite Portugueseswith the coat of arms of King João III.

It was by far the oldest shipwreck ever found in sub-Saharan Africa, and the richest.  What the dollar value of it all would be is anyone’s guess.  Those Portugueses on their own are so rare that even the Bank of Portugal has only a couple in its collection and yet here were 174 of them, and all in mint condition. And that is just for starters. But none of these treasures, the gold, the ivory, not even the exceedingly valuable astrolabes have fired the imaginations of the world’s archaeologists as much as the wreck itself, the whole unspoiled package: an Portuguese East Indiaman from the 1530s, the very flower of the Age of Discovery, still with its cargo of treasure and trade goods intact, having lain untouched and unsuspected in these sands for nearly 500 years.

“This is an absolutely priceless opportunity,” says Francisco Alves, the doyen of Portuguese maritime archaeologists and the former head of the National Museum who flew to Namibia to view the wreck and assist in the excavation. “We know so little about these great old ships.  This is only the second one ever to be excavated by archaeologists. All the others were found by treasure hunters who plundered them for their gold and shoved aside as rubbish everything else.”

But treasure hunters were never going to be a problem here, not in the heart of one of the world’s most jealously guarded diamond mines and on a coast whose very name – Sperrgebeit – means ‘forbidden zone’ in Afrikaans.  Far from plundering, officials at De Beers and the Namibian Government, who work the lease as a joint venture, suspended their own operations around the wreck site, called in a team of archaeologists and, for a few gloriously diverting weeks, mined history instead of diamonds.

And such history: not bland schoolbook history, with its timelines and famous names, nor even the treasure hunter’s version, all gold and guts and glory, but the raw nitty-gritty of life at sea in the smelly old days of the 16thcentury, right down to the wooden lice combs and the scary brass, mercury-charged syringes used for treating venereal disease on board.

It will take scholars around the world years to sift through, catalogue and study the wealth of material gleaned from the Diamond Shipwreck, as it has come to be known, but already, and with the help of some inspired detective work amongst the rare manuscripts and royal archives in Lisbon, enough bits and pieces have been cobbled together to tell the tale of a long-forgotten voyage and a vanished ship that turned out to be as rich in irony and allegory as it was in gold.

It’s a story that begins not on a dark and stormy night off the Cape of Good Hope, but months beforehand, on a fresh spring day in Lisbon – Friday, the 7thof March 1533 to be exact – when the great naus of that year’s India fleet sailed grandly down the Tagus River and out into the broad Atlantic, on their eighteen month odyssey to bring back a fortune in pepper and spices from Goa and Cochin.

It would have been a sight worth seeing: crowds cheering along the shore, hundreds of small boats following the fleet down the river, and the big ships themselves flying all their flags and pennants, and with colourful silks and velvets draped from their towering castles.  “The departure of the India fleet was a spectacular event,” says Filipe de Vieira Castro, a Portuguese-born archaeologist at Texas A&M University and one of the world’s leading experts on Portuguese ships and the Carreira da India, as their old spice run was called. “A kind of carnival atmosphere would settle over the city.  There would be processions and tumults in the streets, masses would be sung everywhere, alimonies thrown to the poor, donations, altars and icons pledged to ensure a safe and prosperous trip.  Hundreds of small boats would drift around the fleet as it sailed downstream.  Some would be ferrying out the most important passengers, who typically waited until the last minute before boarding, while others would drift along empty, waiting to recover the visitors who were still aboard, saying good-bye to family and friends. And the ships themselves would be lavishly decorated.”

These were the pride of Portugal, the space shuttles of the day. Sofala, Mombassa, Zanzibar, Cochin, Ternate, Japan: fabled names that once had been as remote as the stars were now familiar ports of call, part of the Portuguese vernacular, thanks to Portuguese ingenuity and cutting edge technology.  And the riches these globe-trotting vessels brought back from Africa and the East transformed Lisbon in a few swashbuckling decades from an impoverished backwater on the wrong side of the Iberian peninsula to one of Europe’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities.

How wealthy? Put it this way: when an English fleet ambushed and captured the giant nau Madre de Deuson its way home from India in 1592, the treasure in spices and silks and jewels they found aboard that one ship was said to be worth more than £500,000, or nearly the half the value of the entire English exchequer at the time.  And the jaw-dropping size of the 1600-tonne four-decked behemoth, triple the size of anything in the English fleet, caused such a sensation when it was towed into Dartmouth harbour, and brought so many rollicking sightseers thronging to the waterfront, that Queen Elizabeth was obliged to send Sir Walter Raleigh down there to restore order.

The outbound ships that sailed down the Tagus River that long-ago spring day in 1533 were nothing like as large as the Madre de Deus.  They were, however, sturdy and capable and brand new, having been launched only a few weeks earlier. Two of them were owned by the king himself.  One of these was the Bom Jesus– the Good Jesus – captained by one Dom Francisco de Noronha, and rather grudgingly captained if surviving letters in the royal archives are to be believed.

It seems he believed that he’d deserved a bigger ship than the modest Bom Jesus, which appears to have been about 110 feet long and maybe 350 tonnes.  It wasn’t just a matter of ego, it would have been financial as well; a smaller ship meant less deck space for the captain’s personal cargos.  One of the prime inducements for making the long and difficult passage to India was the opportunity to conduct lucrative trading ventures on your own behalf. The more stuff you could carry, the more money you could make; Dom Francisco considered himself short-changed.

Evidently his grousing reached the royal ears, as did his attempts to have himself put in charge of a different ship.  “You will to Dom Francisco from my part,” write the King in a letter dated 10 February 1533,  “that he is to go in the nau that you will give him, because we will not see in it any disrespect, and that he must be happy to go in the nau that you will give him, and because I also order it to be so…”

However chaffed and put-upon Dom Francisco might have felt that morning, far greater challenges were lurking over the horizon than where and how to stack his duty-free loot once he reached India.  While the other ships of the fleet would all arrive safely to the voluptuous palm-fringed harbour at Goa that October, hisnext landfall and that of the 300 or so sailors, soldiers, merchants, priests, nobles and slaves with him would be the heavy surf and barren dunes of the Namib Desert, and in horrifying circumstances.

Thankfully the massive low pressure system in the South Atlantic that would cause that was in the mercifully unforeseeable future, as were the dark theological clouds that were already gathering over the church spires in Lisbon.

“From the 1530s onwards, the forces of the Holy Inquisition worked tirelessly to destroy the spirit of the Renaissance in Portugal and Spain,” says Castro.  “This ship was one of the last to be built in a happy, progressive, an optimistic Portugal, where merchants and learned men still had a say, and before the ignorant and brutal landed aristocracy found an opportunity to express their frustration at the cultural changes through the mighty arm of the Inquisition.”.

For the time all was glorious sunshine and rolling seas, a day of ‘very good weather’ as the King would describe it in a note a few days later discussing the sailing of the fleet.

By the time the sun had set their first night at sea and the evening stars were glimmering in the sky, the ships would have been well offshore, running before a fair wind on a bearing of south-southwest, a course that would take them past the Canaries, Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands.

Pinning a name and a story to a five-centuries-old lump of wood found unexpectedly on a far-flung shore takes a fair amount of canny detective work and more than a little luck, particularly if the anonymous lump of wood in question is thought likely to have been early Portuguese.  While the Spanish Empire left mountains of paperwork in its wake, a catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and fire virtually wiped Lisbon off the map in November 1755 and sent the Casa da India, where the vast majority of their precious maps, charts and shipping records were stored, tumbling into the Tagus.

“That has left a huge hole in our history,” says Paulo Monteiro, a maritime archaeologist and researcher who works with the Portuguese Ministry of Culture.  “With no India archives left to peruse, one has to revert to other, more imaginative ways of finding information.”

In this instance, the study of rare coins: those beautiful Portugueses of King João III found in abundance on the wreck.  Minted from gold bartered for at the fortress at Mina, on the Gulf of Guinea, they were made for only a few heady years during the glory days of Portugal’s spice empire, from 1525 to 1538, after which they were recalled, melted down and never reissued.  A needlessly showy, high-denomination coin (a single one would purchase nearly 25,000 sardines) they were made of the purest gold instead of .900 fine, as was the case everywhere else.  Consequently they were too valuable to keep in circulation; too many were hoarded by foreigners or, worse still, being re-melted, alloyed with silver and used to produce look-alike coins of cheaper grade gold.  And so in November 1538, they were withdrawn.

Finding so many rare yet sparkling new Portugueses on the wreck is a strong indication that the ship sailed during this 13-year window in time.  Better still, microscopic examination of the coins reveals that not only are they uncirculated, but they were all struck with the same die, apparently in sequence: in other words, they appear to have come directly from the mint, and not from some old stash someone decided to spend years later.

Moreover, none of the other coins identified so far with the wreck, mainly Spanish excellentes, are inconsistent dates in with this period nor are any of the trade goods, says Monteiro, while twenty tonnes of copper ingots bearing the hallmark of Anton Fugger, the so-called ‘Prince of Merchants’, is a pretty clear indication that was a ship that was on its outward passage to India to buy spices rather than returning.  “In a nutshell, we are looking for a ship that was lost on the way to India sometime between 1525 and 1538.”

While the complete Casa da India records are long gone, tantalising snippets of paperwork remain, scattered around in rare manuscript sections of libraries and in the royal archives at Torre do Tombo, which survived the 1755 earthquake. Among these are the Relações das Armadas, the so-called narratives of the fleets, which were compiled by private citizens from the 16thcentury onwards primarily as a way of keeping track of the nobles who were sent abroad in the service of the state.

“There are about 50 of these narratives surviving,” Monteiro explains, warming to his topic, a man with an almost buccaneering zeal for wresting secrets out of the archives. “As with any unofficial texts, of course, there are gaps and errors but in greater or lesser detail they list year by year the names of the ships that went to India, their captains and sometimes mention what if anything happened to them along the way.”

A thorough study of the three most complete Relações das Armadasin existence shows that just half a dozen ships were lost on the way toIndia between 1525 and 1538, and five of these could be accounted for in specific locations far from Namibia, usually on some island or coast in the Indian Ocean.  The sixth, though, stood out in letters of fire: the Bom Jesus, 1533, and an enticingly vague ‘lost on the turn of the Cape’.  Even when he followed the narratives all the way up to the year 1600, there were still no other candidates except the Bom Jesus– “no other known candidates, that is,” he adds, with a lawyerly concern for future possibilities.

Another tantalising pointer to the Bom Jesuscomes from a letter Monteiro unearthed in the royal archives.  Dated the 13thof February 1533, and written by the King to the Count of Castanheira, the Royal Purveyor, it reveals that His Highness had just sent a knight to Seville to pick up 20,000 cruzados worth of gold from a consortium of Spanish businessmen who wanted to invest in the fleet which was about to sail for India – the fleet that included the Bom Jesus.

One of the curious things about the wreck that has been puzzling archaeologists is the huge quantity of Spanish coins – about eighty percent of the gold pieces are excellentes– unexpected for a Portuguese ship. “This letter would go a long way towards explaining that,” says Monteiro.  “Twenty thousand cruzados was a lot of money.  Spanish investors, it seems, had an unusually large stake in the 1533 fleet.

“The nature of the game being what it is, of course, we will probably never be able to say absolutely for certain that this is the Bom Jesus, but she matches all the known facts and she’s the only ship we know of that does.  At the very least you’d have to call this a good working hypothesis.”

And working from he found letters in the royal archives and elsewhere that breathed life and detail into the sailing of the India Fleet in March 1533.  There was even a tantalising glimpse of the Bom Jesusin a rare 16thcentury tome called the Memória das Armadas.

Published as a commemorative volume, a sort of Renaissance-era coffee table book, it contains illustrations of each of the fleets, year by year, that sailed for India from the time of Vasco da Gama’s expedition onward.  Among the pictures for 1533 is a vignette of two rigged masts under full sail disappearing into the waves and the words ‘Bom Jesus?’ together with a simple epitaph: perdido– lost.

So what did happen? It seems that four months or so after their grand departure from Lisbon, and somewhere deep in watery vastness between the island specks of Tristan da Cunha and the southern tip of Africa, a huge storm blew up and scattered the fleet.  Details are sketchy.  Captain Dom João Pereira, the fleet’s commander, wrote an account of the voyage once they reached Goa, but his report has since been lost – all that remains in the records is a clerk’s annotated acknowledgement that it was received and a mention that the Bom Jesusdisappeared in wild weather somewhere off the cape.  How the ship ended up hundreds of miles away, on Namibia’s fearsome Skeleton Coast, remains a mystery.  One guess is that the storm-battered ship, possibly dismasted or otherwise disabled, was caught up in the powerful southerly winds and the Benguela Current that surges along this stretch of the southwest African coast and found itself driven helplessly north.

Whatever happened, by the time the windswept scrub of the Namib Desert hove into view, the plucky nau was done for and everybody aboard knew it.  Five anchors were found near the wreck site, an indication, say mariners, that its captain made no attempt to stand offshore but drove his foundering ship straight towards the beach in a bid to get his people safely ashore as quickly as possible.

But there was to be no soft scudding onto sand here, only an outcrop of hard unyielding metamorphic rock in about 25 feet of water and 150 yards out.  The ship struck on her starboard side, a shuddering blow that broke off a big chunk of the stern, and sent tonnes of copper ingots tumbling into the sea like so many bright pennies from a broken bank.

Fast forward five centuries to a maritime archaeology site that feels slightly surreal: seven metres below sea level, the Atlantic Ocean held back a by a massive earthen retaining wall that leaks a bit along its base.  A knot of people in hats and sun-cream are milling around on the seafloor, excavating a sunken ship beneath a dazzling African sun.  A surveyor and his theodolite are perched atop the very outcrop of schist that dashed the life out of what appears to have been the Bom Jesusall those years ago, plotting the position of an age-blackened chunk of stern that once had been draped in velvet.

Down amongst the wreckage itself, a dozen men from Namdeb’s Waste Management Team, in identical blue boiler suits, operate a powerful vacuum cleaner, suctioning up diamond-rich sand from around the great ship’s timbers, a reminder that for all the excitement of the find, this is still a diamond mine.  And a rich one, where loose diamonds could well be mingled in the very sands the archaeologists are brushing away.  All-seeing CCTV cameras, set up around the site perimeter, monitor everyone’s movements.  The real-time images are relayed back to the security office at ‘checkpoint’, the entrance to the mine, where the ‘moustache men’, as security officers are known in the local vernacular, study the screens.

“If it hadn’t been for those copper ingots, there’d be nothing left here to find,” says Bruno Werz, a South African archaeologist who was called in from Cape Town to oversee the excavation.  “Five centuries of storms and waves would have washed everything away.”

Like investigators at a modern disaster scene, Werz and his team have been poring over the wreckage, measuring, photographing, scanning the site with a state-of-the-art three-dimensional laser scanner, millimetre by millimetre, trying, among other things, to piece together the ship’s final harrowing moments. It wouldn’t have been pretty: the mangled remains of the hull and forecastle and a tangle of sails, spars and rigging sloshing about in the swell, drifting north with the current and breaking apart as it went.  A huge oaken rigging block, believed to have been part of the mizzenmast, was found by mineworkers three miles further up the coast.

And what of the people on board, Dom Francisco and the rest?

“A winter storm along this coast is no joke,” says Dieter Noli, the mine’s resident archaeologist, who has lived and worked along this stretch of the Namib Desert for over ten years.  “And that is probably exactly what caused the shipwreck in the first place.  It would have been nasty, with winds of over 80mph and a huge breaking surf, and I mean huge.  While the wreck site is seven metres below mean sea level, the rock on which the ship struck would actually have been exposed in the trough of a convincing wave – that’s how big the surf gets here, and the wreck would have been right in among all those breakers.  Getting ashore would have been just about impossible.

“On the other hand, though, if the storm had blown itself out and the ship wallowed ashore in one of those quiet fog-shrouded days we also get around here, well, now thatopens up all kinds of interesting possibilities, starting with them floating ashore on emptied and roped together casks.”

There is some evidence to suggest that’s what may have happened.  While the discovery of human toe bones in a shoe found pinned beneath a mass of timbers indicate that at least one person did not survive, they are the only human remains found with the wreck.  Nor were many personal possessions found amongst the artefacts, facts which lead archaeologists to believe that despite the break-up of the ship along the surf-line, many, if not most of those aboard were able to escape. But escape to what?  This is one of most inhospitable places on earth, a dreary uninhabited monotony of dunes and scrub stretching for hundreds of miles. It was winter.  They were cold and wet, dazed and exhausted and bereft. There was no hope of rescue or a search party.  Nobody in the outside world even knew they were alive, let alone where to start looking – assuming, that is, anyone would have been willing to spend months, risking ships, and lives, and money that could have been spent earning fortunes elsewhere scouring these treacherous coastlines, on spec, searching for people who were probably dead anyway.  Nor was any ship likely to pass this way by chance; they were far off the trade routes. And as far as self-rescue went, getting themselves back to Portugal by hook or by crook, they might as well have been on Mars.

All the same things needn’t necessarily have ended so badly for the castaways, according to Noli, not if they met adversity in the right spirit and for once had a bit of luck. The Orange River lay only ten miles to the south of the wreck, a source of fresh water whose bloom they would have noticed as they drifted by its mouth, and if they weren’t squeamish there was plenty of food about: shellfish, the eggs of Harlaub’s Gulls, and loads of desert land snails made active by the recent winter rains.

Trigonephrus– the land snails – were the local seasonal specialty,” says Noli.  “We have extensive archaeological evidence that they were heavily exploited by early man, with shell middens found all along the Orange River and in the coastal desert zones.”

What’s more, the Portuguese could well have met local experts to clue them in on how to survive in their brave new world.  Winter was the season when the Bushmen hunter-gatherers along the Orange River ventured north along the shore in the hopes of finding the carcasses of the Southern Right Whales that occasionally washed ashore here and whose beached bones would one day prompt mariners to call this the Skeleton Coast.

How these encounters fared would have been up to the Portuguese, says Noli.  “If they had the wit to trade rather than try to take there is no reason to believe everybody wouldn’t get along. The few small bands of hunter-gatherers along the river had no population-resource pressures to contend with, and so no reason to be aggressive to the newcomers.  On the contrary, a big strapping Portuguese Don could well have been seen as an attractive prospect for a son-in-law.”

Whatever their final fate, the survivors of the Bom Jesus had no inkling of the exquisite irony with which their prayers, uttered so long ago in Lisbon, had been answered. They’d set off on a great journey in search of riches, pleging altars and icons for favours and success. Now here they were, delivered onto a shore of unimaginable wealth – a 185-mile stretch of dunes so fantastically rich in high-quality diamonds that in the early 1900s an explorer named Ernst Reuning made a wager with a companion about the amount of time it would take to fill a tin cup with gems found lose in the sand. The job took all of ten minutes.

For long ages the great river had been washing millions, even billions, of diamonds down from deposits as far as 1,700 miles inland. Only the hardest most brilliant gem-quality stones survived the journey. They spilled into the Atlantic at the river’s mouth and were washed up the coast, borne by the same cold currents that would one day sweep the Bom Jesus to its death.