Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck

Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck

Patrick Lynch - May 30, 2017

Treasure hunters dream of finding one of the many piles of hidden riches buried around the world. The notion of finding millions of dollars worth of gold at sea has been a popular one for centuries due to the number of missing ships carrying loot during the Age of Exploration. This dream became a reality in 2008 when a group of miners found approximately £9 million worth of gold coins on a vessel that was lost at sea in 1533.

The Recovery of the Bom Jesus

Back in 1908, a German prospector found a diamond in the Namibian Desert. This discovery launched a century-long operation to find more precious stones in an area known as Sperrgebiet, also called ‘forbidden territory.’ Would-be diamond hunters took over an area of approximately 10,000 square miles, and even today, the Namibian government runs a joint operation with DeBeers in the region.

Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck
Some of the artefacts found on the ship. new.com.au

In 2008, a miner working for DeBeers was conducting his usual search for diamonds when he came across gold. Further excavation revealed metal, wood, and pipes, a discovery that perplexed the miners to the point where they called in an archaeologist. Dieter Noli was one of the experts called to the scene, and he described it as a “disturbed beach” with “bits and pieces.” He quickly uncovered elephant tusks and a 500-year old musket and immediately knew it was a shipwreck.

Buoyed by their findings, archaeologists went to work and uncovered 44,000 pounds of copper ingots, weaponry such as cannon balls, bronze cannons & armor, ivory tusks, pewter bowls and around 2,000 gold coins worth over £9 million. The gold coins were predominantly Spanish excelentes although archaeologists also found Venetian, French and Moorish coinage among others.

Scratching the Surface

As well as being the richest shipwreck ever found in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, it is also the oldest. Archaeologists have all but confirmed that the wreckage is that of the Bom Jesus, a ship that set sail from Lisbon in 1533 only to disappear somewhere near Oranjemund, a Namibian mining town, en-route to India.

Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck
An archaeologist holding ivory found on the Bom Jesus. CNN

It took six days of digging to uncover the wreck, but archaeologists believe they have only scratched the surface of their discovery. According to Portuguese archaeologist, Francisco Alves, it is a “priceless opportunity” to learn more about ships of the age and perhaps more importantly, what everyday life was like back in the Age of Exploration. The Bom Jesus is only the second intact ship of its kind excavated by archaeologists as all the rest were plundered.

The location of the ship in the ‘forbidden zone’ means it was never likely to be a target for treasure hunters. Officials of DeBeers and the Namibian government, who work together on a project called Namdeb, temporarily suspended operations at the site until a team of archaeologists it called in were satisfied that they found what they wanted.

According to Filipe Vieira de Castro of Texas A&M University, there is so much that is unknown about the wreck. It could take years for scholars to study the Bom Jesus, also known as the Diamond Shipwreck. De Castro said the ship would help archaeologists learn more about rigging, hull design, how the ships evolved and life on board one of these vessels.

Timothy Insoll of Manchester University points out that historical sources are limited when it comes to providing details of everyday life for sailors on board these ships. The bones found on board the Bom Jesus can provide investigators with an idea of the typical diet of a sailor for example. It is an extraordinary discovery because a lot of items survived when they really shouldn’t have.

Marine archaeologist Bruno Werz says the ship’s wooden remains should have been eaten by organisms, but the poison from the copper ingots would have protected part of the materials. It will take a long time to study the shipwreck fully, but another question remains unanswered: Why did the Bom Jesus sink in the first place?

Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck
Depiction of the Bom Jesus. Namibian Odyssey

The Fate of the Bom Jesus

The Bom Jesus is a Portuguese East Indiaman, and experts have dated it to the 1530s. The East Indiaman was the type of ship used by explorers of the age to travel from Europe to Asia and back with exotic goods. Even though these vessels are of immense importance when it comes to learning more about the Age of Discovery, the Bom Jesus is only the second East Indiaman ever found intact.

Although the identity of the ship is not 100 percent certain, archaeologists are convinced it is the Bom Jesus which disappeared in 1533. On March 7, 1533, a number of ships sailed out of Lisbon, Portugal along the Tagus River, destined to visit Asia and trade with foreign merchants. It was supposed to be a grand adventure for the explorers as they began a 15-month journey.

Two of these ships were brand new and owned by the king; the Bom Jesus was one of them. It was captained by Dom Francisco de Noronha and carried a total of 300 people. The passengers included crew members, slaves, priests, merchants, and nobility. The problem faced by archaeologists and historians is the lack of written records regarding these ships. In November 1755, Lisbon was virtually destroyed by a combination of an earthquake, tsunami, and fire. The Casa de India was an important building as it contained documents such as charts, maps and shipping records relating to the Age of Discovery. It was destroyed in the disaster and left a huge hole in the history of Portugal.

A handful of documents survived however and included details of 21 ships destined for India that was lost between 1525 and 1600. The Bom Jesus was lost at the turn of the Cape of Good Hope and was the only one of the ships to sink anywhere near Namibia. Archaeologists believe the Bom Jesus was caught in a storm off the Cape. It was forced northward for hundreds of miles before running aground off the coast of Namibia. The vessel’s structure fell apart, and the treasure chest (later found by the miners) was in the captain’s cabin. It broke free and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

There is no way of knowing whether any of the crew survived. Excavators found human toe bones in a shoe which indicates that at least one person died. As they would be encountering winds of up to 80mph and gigantic breaking surf, getting ashore would have been nearly impossible. The only hope of the crew surviving is if the storm subsided long enough for them to make the shore.

Once ashore, survivors would still be in real danger since the wreck occurred in winter and they were likely exhausted and with no means of finding food on the uninhabited wasteland. The Orange River was 16 miles away and would provide a lifesaving source of water and fresh fish for anyone who made it that far. In reality, it’s likely that the Dom Jesus went down with all hands.

Miners Hit the Jackpot and Found Millions Worth of Gold on a 500-Year-Old Shipwreck
Overhead view of the shipwreck site. Gondwana Collection

Identifying the Bom Jesus

The aforementioned disaster of 1755 made it initially tough to identify the wreck, but archaeologists were able to put together the puzzle using the available evidence. Some of the coins found in the wreck contained the image of King Dom Joao III which were only minted from 1525 to 1538. At that point, the coins were recalled and melted down; they were never reissued. Clearly, the ship sailed at some point during the 13-year timeframe.

The next clue was the plethora of copper ingots found on board; a strong indication that the ship was on its way to India rather than making the return journey. As I mentioned above, the Bom Jesus was the only ship in the era that was lost near Namibia. A letter dated February 13, 1533, reveals the King sent one of his knights to Seville to pick up approximately 20,000 crusadoes’ worth of gold from a group of investors who had plowed money into the fleet bound for India.

Archaeologists also found a 16th century manuscript called Memoria das Armadas that contained illustrations of the ships in fleets that set sail for India in the era. On the page outlining ships from 1533, it has an image of a ship with the text ‘Bom Jesus’ and ‘lost.’

Hopefully, the experts working on the project will find important information about the Age of Discovery from the wreck. Perhaps ironically, the passengers of the Dom Jesus ran aground off the coast of a place filled with unimaginable wealth. In the early 20th century, a German explorer called Ernest Reuning made a bet with a colleague on how long it would take to fill a tin cup full of diamonds he found in the sand. It took 10 minutes.