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Ancient Shipwreck Ladened with Gold Found in Diamond Mining Territory

The miners were searching for diamonds but found gold and other valuable artifacts instead.

Ann Moises

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  • An ancient shipwreck believed to be ‘The Bom Jesus’ was found in the sandy beach of Sperrgebiet or the ‘prohibited areain Namibia.
  • It was a 16th century Portuguese vessel carrying gold, ivory, and loads of other treasures on its way to India when it disappeared in 1533.
  • Miners recovered the ship’s gold while searching for diamonds in the area in 2008.

On April 1, 2008, miners working for the Namdeb Diamond Corporation, a company owned by De Beers and the Namibian government, chanced upon several strange objects.

Unsure of what they have unearthed, the company called Dr. Dieter Noli, chief archaeologist of the Southern Africa Institute of Maritime Archaeological Research.

When he got the call, he immediately knew the workers stumbled upon a shipwreck.
Photo: Amy Toensing

The Namibian coastline is known for storms and treacherous seas therefore, finding a shipwreck here was not entirely surprising for Dr. Noli.

“It just looked like a disturbed beach, but lying on it were bits and pieces,” said Dr. Noli when he first surveyed the area. “I thought ‘Oh, no no, this is definitely a shipwreck.”

This was, however, no ordinary vessel. In fact, archeologists believed it might be one of the most significant shipwrecks ever found although very little of the original structure was left because it was extremely battered by the sea.

While bulldozing, the miners found metal, wood, and pipes buried in the dunes.
Photo: Dieter Noli via AP
De Beers Group and the Namibian government ran a joint operation of Sperrgebiet (a German term that means ‘prohibited area’) where they specifically found the wreck.
Photo: Amy Toensing

In 1908, a German prospector found a diamond there. Eventually, hundreds more came to the region in search for diamonds. They even acquired 10,000 square miles of the desert, CNN reported. As the name suggests, the territory has been completely off-limits since then.

A week into the excavation, they found a treasure chest containing pure gold coins in mint condition. These coins gave Dr. Noli and his team a significant clue about the shipwreck.
The coins dated between 1528 and 1538 apparently came from Spain and Portugal.
Photo: Supplied

“It adds new meaning to the concept of the ship having being loaded with gold,” Dr. Noli said.

Although the archeologists were not completely certain, evidence suggested that the shipwreck was The Bom Jesus (‘The Good Jesus’) that disappeared in 1533 on its way to India.

According to History Collection, The Bom Jesus was a Portuguese East Indiaman that belonged to King Jaoa III and captained by Dom Francisco de Noronha.

It was a type of vessel used to travel back and forth from Europe to Asia. Aboard it were a total of 300 people including sailors, soldiers, merchants, slaves, priests, and aristocrats.

The team found various treasures including Portuguese silver coins, compasses, and astrological tools.
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
A 500-year old musket.
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
They also found elephant tusks and 44,000 pounds of copper ingots.
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
Five anchors and three navigational dividers.
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
Pewter tableware, copper utensils, and bronze bowls.
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
Even this brass medical syringe.
Photo: Chris Torchia/AP

In total, they discovered at least 5,438 artifacts of ‘cultural, scientific, and intrinsic value,’ News.com.au wrote in an article.

The ship’s cargo matched the detailed entry logged in a rare 16th century manuscript “Memorias Das Armadas,” which listed the Bom Jesus as ‘lost.’
Photo: Dr. Dieter Noli
The journey of the Bom Jesus was thought to have been cut short by a violent storm.
Photo: Ancient Origins

Based on the evidences they found at the site, Dr. Noli and his team rationalized what happened to The Bom Jesus.

“We figured out the ship came in, it hit a rock and it leaned over,” he told CNN. “The superstructure started breaking up and the chest with the coins was in the captain’s cabin, and it broke free and fell to the bottom of the sea intact… In breaking up, a very heavy part of the side of the ship fell on that chest and bent some of the coins. You can see the force by which the chest was hit, but it also protected the chest.”

Marine biologist Bruno Werz believed the copper ingots were vital to the vessel’s preservation.

“Wooden remains would normally have been eaten by organisms, but the poison would have protected part of those materials,” he said.

The mining company’s security is protecting the remains of the shipwreck. They are inside a warehouse in the diamond mine, hidden from the outside world just like the entire Sperrgebiet territory.

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