Treasure-Filled Portuguese Shipwreck Found In Desert Coastline Of Namibia

The ship was laden with tons of copper ingots, elephant tusks, gold coins — and cannons to fend off pirates lurking off Africa some five centuries ago.

It had nothing to protect it from the fierce weather off a particularly bleak stretch of inhospitable coast. It sank, only to be found last month by men seeking other treasure.

“If you’re mining on the coast, sooner or later you’ll find a wreck,” archaeologist Dieter Noli, who is researching the ship’s origins, said in an interview Thursday, describing De Beers geologists stumbling on the wreck April 1 as they prospected for diamonds off Namibia’s southwest coast.

Namdeb Diamond Corp., a joint venture of the government of Namibia and De Beers, first reported the find in a statement Wednesday, and planned a news conference in the Namibian capital on the discovery next week.

Namdeb had cleared and drained a stretch of seabed, building an earthen wall to keep the water out so geologists could work. Noli said one of the geologists first saw a few ingots, but had no idea what they were. Then they found what looked like cannon barrels, but weren’t sure.

The geologists stopped the brutal earth moving work of searching for diamonds and sent photos to Noli, who had done research in the Namibian desert since his university days in Cape Town in the mid-1980s and since 1996 has advised De Beers on the archaeological impact of its operations in Namibia.

The find “was what I’d been waiting for for 20 years,” Noli said. “Understandably, I was pretty excited. I still am.”

Noli’s original specialty was the desert, but because of Namdeb’s offshore explorations, he had been preparing for the possibility of a wreck, even learning to dive. He had also studied maritime artifacts with Bruno Werz, a recognized expert in the field who was one of his instructors at the University of Cape Town. Noli brought in Werz to help research the Namdeb wreck.

Judging from the notables depicted on the hoard of Spanish and Portuguese coins and the type of cannons and crude navigational equipment, the ship went down in the late 1400s or early 1500s, around the time Vasco de Gama and Columbus were plying the waters of the New World, “a period when Africa was just being opened up, when the whole world was being opened up,” Noli said.

Rosary beads and a silver Portuguese coin

Noli compared the remnants found — the ingots, ivory, coins, coffin-sized timber fragments — to evidence at a crime scene.

“The surf would have pounded that wreck to smithereens,” he said. “It’s not like Pirates of the Caribbean, with a ship more or less intact.”

He and Werz are trying to fit the pieces into a story. They divide their time between inventorying the find in Namibia and researching in museums and libraries in Cape Town in neighboring South Africa, from where Noli spoke by phone Thursday. Eventually, they will go to Portugal, whose ships were particularly active in the area 500 years ago, or Spain to search for records of a vessel with similar cargo that went missing.

“You don’t turn a skipper loose with a cargo of that value and have no record of it,” Noli said.

A selection of items from the ship with a trowel below them for scale. The best preserved astrolabe is in the middle, a nice frying pan on the right, some pottery on left, a pewter plate above and a section of a pewter porridge bowel is on the top right

The wealth aboard is intriguing. Noli said the large amount of copper could mean the ship had been sent by a government looking for material to build cannons. Trade in ivory was usually controlled by royal families, another indication the ship was on official business.

On the other hand, why was the captain still holding so many coins? Shouldn’t they have been traded for the ivory and copper?

“Either he did a very, very good deal. Or he was a pirate,” Noli said. “I’m convinced we’ll find out what the ship was and who the captain was.”

What sent her down may remain a mystery. But Noli has theories, noting the stretch of coast where it met its fate was notorious for fierce storms and disorienting fogs. In later years, sailors with sophisticated navigational tools avoided it. The only tools found aboard Noli’s wrecks were astrolabes, which can be used to determine only how far north or south you have sailed.

“Sending a ship toward Africa in that period, that was venture capital in the extreme,” Noli said. “These chaps were very much on the edge as far as navigation. It was still very difficult for them to know where they were.”

Noli has found signs worms were at work on his ship’s timber, and sheets of lead used to patch holes, indications the ship was old when it set out on its last voyage.

Imagine a leaky, overladen ship caught in a storm. The copper ingots, shaped like sections of a sphere, would have sat snug. But the tusks — some 50 have been found — could have shifted, tipping the ship.

“And down you go,” Noli said, “weighed down by your treasure.”


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