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Lost Treasure: The Mysterious Diamond Shipwreck

Imagine being blown off course while navigating treacherous seas and ending up shipwrecked on a coast with nothing but diamond-laden sand. This happened to a 16th-century Portuguese trading vessel carrying a fortune in gold and ivory bound for the spice port of India. Archaeologists would later find 22 tons of copper blocks beneath the sand, as well as cannons, swords, ivory, and chain mail—thousands of artifacts in all. It is by far the oldest shipwreck ever found on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa, and the richest.

Illustration by Jon Foster

The Diamond Shipwreck, as it has come to be called, was discovered in 2008 near the mouth of the Orange River on Namibia’s southern coast. A company geologist came across what at first he took to be a perfectly round half-sphere of rock. Curious, he picked it up and immediately realized it was a copper ingot – a block of metal meant to make them easier to transport and trade. A strange trident-shaped mark on its weathered surface turned out to be the hallmark of Anton Fugger, one of Renaissance Europe’s wealthiest financiers.

Photo Credit: Dieter Noli

The treasures of the Diamond Shipwreck are worth an unknown amount, but its historical value is priceless. Francisco Alves, the head of nautical archaeology under the Ministry of Culture, called it “a priceless opportunity.” Scholars will study the wealth of material gleaned from the shipwreck for years to come.

The story of the Diamond Shipwreck began in 1533 when a fleet set sail down the Tagus River in Lisbon on a 15-month odyssey to bring back a fortune in pepper and spices from distant continents. Two of the ships were brand new and owned by the king himself. One of these was the Bom Jesus, captained by one Dom Francisco de Noronha and carrying 300 or so sailors, soldiers, merchants, priests, nobles, and slaves.

The story of the shipwreck and its aftermath is as rich in irony as it is in gold. The Bom Jesus set sail for Lisbon from Goa, but it never made it home. They were stranded, surrounded by millions of dollars worth of diamonds but with no ability to trade or be saved. Scholars believe it might have been blown off course by a fierce storm while trying to round the southern tip of Africa.

Photo Credit: Namdeb Diamond Corporation

Namibia’s southern coast is an infamous place for shipwrecks, as evidenced by the number of vessels that have met their end there. Archaeologists and treasure hunters alike have long been fascinated by the Diamond Shipwreck. The wreck gives us a glimpse of the past that can only be described as priceless.

The discovery of the Diamond Shipwreck reminds us that there are still stories to be told and treasures to be found, even in places where we least expect them!

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