A Fortune in Shipwreck Treasure Surfaces in the African Desert

Back in 1533 there was no NOAA, and no storm warnings. Spanish and Portuguese explorers braved the world’s oceans with only a good ship and a few rudimentary navigational instruments. Back then the weather report involved scanning the horizon and thinking, “Those clouds look bad…” So it was in the winter of 1533 that Dom Francisco de Noronha, commanding the Portuguese ship the Bom Jesus (Good Jesus), knew his ship was in trouble. The ship was on its way to India, to colonies the Portuguese and Spanish had established there for trade.

Storms are frequent and fierce in the southern Atlantic, just a few hundred miles north of the tip of Africa. The Bom Jesus was carrying 300 passengers, including crew, soldiers, merchants, priests, nobility and slaves, and was also weighed down by tons of treasure on its way to the colonies. In the midst of the storm the ship struck a rock and began taking on water as it drifted toward a largely desolate shoreline. Anyone who sails knows that the closer you get to shore, the bigger and more destructive the waves get; the Bom Jesus was torn apart with great force. At some point the captain ordered everyone over the side and, by all indications, everyone made it off the ship, though one person left a foot trapped under heavy timbers behind. The ship broke apart and sank in the near-shore waters, to be largely forgotten to history for almost five centuries.

In 1908 Germans exploring the formidable desert along the Namibian coast discovered diamonds. There was a time when the desert beach was, literally, littered with diamonds and the Germans called it the Sperrgebiet, or “forbidden territory” as thousands swept in to comb the beaches for gems. Eventually the area fell under control of the De Beers company and was jealously guarded from gem hunters by local marksmen who got paid to shoot first and ask questions later. Ironically, it was the presence of diamonds that allowed another vast treasure to lay undiscovered for another hundred years.

Over the centuries the shoreline shifted and the wreck of the Bom Jesus became landlocked in the desert sands. In 2008 a geologist excavating a test pit on part of the erstwhile beach discovered pieces of wood, metal and tubing. Calling an archaeologist, the site soon gave up the wreck of the Bom Jesus and her treasure. The archaeologists discovered 44,000 pounds of copper ingots, weapons, armor, bronze canons, ivory tusks, and a haul of gold treasure. More than 2,000 gold coins were discovered at the site, most in nearly mint condition. The gold was mostly Spanish excelentes bearing the likenesses of the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, but there were gold coins from all over Africa and India as well.

Interestingly microorganisms should have destroyed the wood and rigging of the ship centuries ago but it was the presence of the copper ingots that kept the forces of decomposition at bay. Anyone with a backyard pond knows that you use copper sulfate to control algae blooms and the ingots acted like a force field against bacteria and algae.

Today the site, along with the rest of Namibian Desert site, remains off limits to visitors, protected by the diamond mine’s vigilant security. The idea of sending the ship’s remains to a museum is being suggested but, so far, the ship remains a mystery to all but a fortunate few.

As to what happened to the unfortunate crew, that’s a matter of informed speculation. What we know is that, other than a few toe bones crushed under a heavy timber, no human remains were found which means the crew probably got off the ship. It’s entirely plausible that at least a few survivors managed to make their way ashore, though being marooned in 10,000 square miles of Namibian Desert is not exactly an upgrade. In the 16th century that was the Big Nowhere and the survivors would have only had a day to find water and there was little food. If they went south, in about 20 miles they would have run into the Orange River and water. If they went north, well, it was likely a fatal decision.

Even if they found water we know no one on that ship was ever heard from again. Maybe being marooned in an endless desert with no food, weapons or money with a contingent of recently freed slaves was how their story ended. Or perhaps it was at the pointy end of a spear belonging to the native peoples who patrolled the desert beaches looking for whale carcasses. With the area still off limits, essentially forever, it’s likely the story of the brave survivors’ final days will never be told.