In 1908, a German prospector found a diamond in the Namibian Desert. The area came to be known as the Sperrgebiet, or “forbidden territory,” and was soon overrun by Germans on the hunt for the precious stone (they annexed 10,000 square miles of the desert for themselves). Today, DeBeers and the Namibian government still run a joint operation in the area.
But on April 1, 2008, a worker discovered something far more valuable. He’d been searching for diamonds but struck gold — only this gold had been missing for nearly half a millennia.
The smoking gun
What was found that day had not been seen since the fifteenth century. The miners themselves did not know what they had hit on when they discovered pieces of metal, wood and pipes while they were bulldozing. At a loss, they called in an archaeologist.
Dieter Noli remembers first surveying the scene:
“It just looked like a disturbed beach, but lying on it were bits and pieces,” he recalls. He uncovered a 500-year-old musket and elephant tusks.
“I thought ‘Oh, no, no, this is definitely a shipwreck.'”
After scrutinizing the find, archaeologists now think it might be one of the most significant shipwrecks ever found.
Though they are unable to unequivocally prove it, overwhelming evidence suggests the vessel is The Bom Jesus (“The Good Jesus”), a Portuguese ship on its way to India that never made its way beyond the Southern Atlantic.
Loaded with thousands of mint condition, pure gold coins from Spain and Portugal, historians are able to date the ship to between 1525 and 1538, whilst the cargo matches that on The Bom Jesus, as detailed in a rare sixteenth-century book “Memorias Das Armadas”, which lists the vessel as lost.
How the ship was lost
From evidence at the site, Noli and his team have pieced together what happened to The Bom Jesus.
“We figured out the ship came in, it hit a rock and it leaned over,” he says. “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.”
Among the haul of gold, tin and ivory were 44,000 pounds of copper ingots, which according to marine archaeologist Bruno Werz could be key to the ship’s preservation.
“Wooden remains would normally have been eaten by organisms,” he explains, “but the poison would have protected part of those materials.”
The diamond mine’s security now protects the remains of the shipwreck. Timber, muskets, cannonballs and swords are kept damp, as they have been since the sixteenth century. In-keeping with the secretive area in which it was discovered, most of the find remains out of the public eye, like the Sperrgebiet itself.
There are hopes however that this will soon change, and a museum featuring the shipwreck is currently being mooted. After 500 years locked away in the sand, one hopes The Bom Jesus will enjoy the attention.