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Treasures That Are Still Lost At Sea

Written by Kevin Jennings

More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, and more than 80% of those waters remain unexplored. The depths of the ocean are home to all sorts of marine life that we know little to nothing about. Roughly 150 new species are classified each year, and with so much of the ocean remaining a mystery, it’s no wonder that the whereabouts of these sunken treasures are mysteries as well.

Sarcophagus of Menkaure


            While there are at least 118 Egyptian pyramids, none are more famous than the Great Pyramids at Giza. The largest pyramid was built to house Pharaoh Khufu, the middle for Pharaoh Khafre, and the smallest for Pharaoh Menkaure. In 1837, English army officer Richard William Howard Vyse began excavating the pyramid of Menkaure. As an army officer Vyse did not know much about archaeology or Egyptology, but he did know about explosives. It was a less than ideal proposition to say the least, but with Vyse’s destructive techniques he was able to find himself directly inside Menkaure’s burial chamber.

            Inside the chamber was an 8 foot stone sarcophagus. It did not have any hieroglyphs, though it was decorated in the style of a palace façade. It was the first time a piece of this nature had been found. The sarcophagus was loaded onto the merchant ship Beatrice which set sail to England. A second ship carrying other Egyptian antiquities was sent as well, but only one would arrive to deliver its goods to the British Museum in London.

            On October 13, 1838, after leaving port in Malta, Beatrice was lost. All that is known is that the ship sank, but its whereabouts are unclear despite considerable effort by many to find it. It’s not just the sarcophagus, either. No sooner had word got out of the Beatrice sinking than wild rumours began to spread, telling of the vast riches held on the vessel. The exact contents are unknown, but the official story is that in addition to the sarcophagus, there should be 200 boxes filled with pink granite and gold coins. This certainly makes it an exciting treasure to search for not only for historical significance, but for monetary gain as well.

            Should the Beatrice be discovered, however, it is unclear what will happen to the sarcophagus of Menkaure. The sarcophagus was aboard an English vessel, but it is most commonly believed to have sunk in Spanish waters. There’s also the small matter of illegal grave robbing. While most of the items being sent to the British Museum were being sent with proper authorization, the sarcophagus was not included on the list of items to be sent to England or the list of items to remain in Egypt. The battle that would ensue over ownership rights would likely be a legal and diplomatic nightmare, so it’s best if whoever finds this lost treasure just pockets whatever gold coins they can and leaves the rest for the bureaucrats to decide. #NotLegalAdvice

Flor de la Mar


            The Flor de la Mar, or Flower of the Sea, was constructed in Lisbon, Portugal in 1502. The Flor de la Mar was a carrack, large ships with three to four masts, that was built for the Portuguese Indian run. It was the largest ship constructed at the time, but was part of an ill-advised policy of ever increasing size for ships partaking in the Indian run. The Flor de la Mar weighed in at 400 tons.

            From the beginning, this massive ship had problems. The maiden voyage to Indian in 1502 went as planned, but the return trip was met with complications. The massive size and weight of the ship, now loaded down with Indian spices, made it difficult to maneuver, particularly through the Mozambique Channel. Leaks began to spring up throughout the ship, and it was forced to dock in Mozambique for two months for repairs.

            In March of 1505, the Flor de la Mar would make its second voyage to India. Once again, problems arose and the ship had to stop in Mozambique for repairs. This time would take much longer, with the ship stranded for ten months. The frustrated Captain Nova would repeatedly try to begin the voyage back to Portugal, only to have to return to Mozambique to continue repairs. In February of 1507, commander of the 8th India Armada Tristão da Cunha would come across the ship, still stuck in Mozambique.

            Cunha ordered his men to remove the spices from the Flor de la Mar and load them onto other vessels that were set to return to Portugal. He also commanded his men to get the ship seaworthy once more so that it could accompany the armada.

            Captain Nova and the Flor de la Mar participated in Cunha’s conquest of Socotra, but much to Nova’s surprise he was ordered to remain in the Arabian Sea as part of a patrol squadron headed by Afonso de Albuquerque. It continued to take part in multiple conquests through 1511. In many regards, this made the ship remarkable in terms of its quality. The average Portuguese carrack was only designed to be used for three to four years, but the Flor de la Mar had been in use for nearly a decade.

            In 1511, the Flor de la Mar took part in the conquest of Malacca, the largest commercial center in the East Indies. After the conquest, Albuquerque made what could only be described as the baffling decision to use the ship to transport the entirety of the treasure looted from the Sultan of Malacca’s palace back to Portugal, despite having an armada at his disposal. The ship clearly had problems when fully encumbered, and the story’s end is all too predicatable.

            The Flor de la Mar sank during a storm on November 20, 1511 off Timia Point in the Kingdom of Aru, Sumatra. The ship with the sultan’s treasure remains somewhere undiscovered on the ocean floor. To whoever finds it, the sultan’s treasure is estimated to be worth $2.6 billion in today’s money.

The Merchant Royal


            The Merchant Royal was an English merchant ship built at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Deptford. The ship first launched in 1627 under the command of captain John Limbrey. During this time, England and Spain were constantly alternating between being at peace and at war with one another, but during times of peace Captain Limbrey took advantage of the lucrative trading opportunities. From 1637-1640, Limbrey took the Merchant Royal and its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, to the New World to trade with Spanish colonies. Once his ship was filled to the brim with treasure, it was time to head back to England.

            The journey was a long one, and the Merchant Royal was leaking badly by the time it had crossed the Atlantic. Captain Limbrey opted to take a pit stop in the port city of Cadiz, Spain. While he was there, a Spanish ship caught fire just before it was set to take off. The ship was loaded with treasure to be converted to currency as payment to Spain’s 30,000 troops stationed in Flanders. Ever the opportunist, Limbrey saw this as a chance to make a little extra money and offered to carry the Spanish treasure to Antwerp on his way home. Given that the Merchant Royal was already having difficulties before adding this extra weight, this was a very poor decision.

            When the Merchant Royal and its sister ship left Cadiz, it was still leaking. On September 23, 1641, the pumps used to eject flooding water broke down, and the ship sank off Land’s End. Eighteen men drowned with the ship, but Captain Limbrey and 40 of his men were able to use life boats to escape and board the Dover Merchant.

            The treasure that sank inside the Merchant Royal is considered by most to be the most valuable sunken treasure in the world, and as such there have been countless endeavors to find it. In 2007, the Odyssey Marine Exploration company, who had been searching for years, recovered an estimated $500 million worth of gold and silver coins from a shipwreck. Initial rumours from the press were of the assumption they had found the Merchant Royal at long last, but the Odyssey team believes the wreck they found was the Spanish Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a vessel that sank in 1804.

            What exactly does it take to be the most valuable sunken treasure of all time? On board the Merchant Royal was over 100,000 pounds of gold. Assuming that the measurements are in the 12 ounce Troy pounds commonly used for gold, that alone would be over $2.4 billion today. There are also 400 bars of Mexican silver and nearly 500,000 pieces of eight, Spanish minted currency made out of silver.

Peking Man


            The fossilized remains of the Peking Man were first discovered in 1921 in the Zhoukoudian Cave in Northern China. The bones were classified as homo erectus pekinesis, a subspecies of homo erectus. This discovery was instrumental in the foundation of Chinese anthropology, and Zhoukoudian has become the most productive site of homo erectus fossils in the world. Peking Man is the oldest known specimen of homo erectus found in Asia, dating back at least 400,000 years to the Middle Pleistocene era. It is unknown whether the plethora of bones found in the cave are because Peking Man lived there, died there, or was carried there by giant hyenas after being killed. Over 100,000 pieces of stone tools have also been discovered, making the latter the least likely. With these fossils found, a dialogue was finally opened between Western and Eastern science on important anthropological matters. With Peking Man classified as a direct human ancestor, it was considered strong evidence for the Out of Asia hypothesis that humans evolved in Asia.

            This was more than just a scientific discovery, however. Peking Man had a major cultural impact in Asia. China had deep rooted superstitions and creation myths, but following the Chinese Communist Revolution, Peking Man was propagandized to introduce the peasant class to Marxism and science. This would ultimately lead to misguided theories about primitive forms of Communism that recreated the divide between Western and Eastern science once again. The schism was exacerbated by Western scientists adopting the Out of Africa hypothesis.

            In 1941, to ensure that the specimens were not destroyed during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the collection of fossils of 40 different individuals were placed into two wooden footlockers and turned over to the United States Marine Corp by the Peking Union Medical College. The Marine Corp was to provide the safe transport of these specimens to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

            The fossils were stored aboard the SS President Harrison, but the ship was attack by Japanese warships and run aground. No one has seen any of the Peking Man fossils since that day. There are numerous theories about the ultimate fate of these fossils. The most common and probable theories, and the reason that we’re talking about it today, are that the bones were either taken aboard the Japanese ship Awa Maru which sank, or that they were moved to another American vessel that also sank. Other theories include that they were buried next to a stone barracks in Qinhuangdao and have since been covered by a parking lot, or the rather ignorant theory that they have been ground up for traditional Chinese medicine.

            Numerous attempts have been made to locate the two footlockers containing these skeletal remains, and large cash rewards have been offered. Their fate remains unknown, most likely somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Great Bell of Dhammazedi


            King Dhammazedi was the 16th king of the Hanthawaddy Kingdom in what is now Myanmar. On February 5, 1484 he ordered the casting of a great bell. The greatest bell, in fact. At 294 tons, it is believed to be the largest bell ever constructed. It was cast out of gold, silver, copper, and tin. The Bell of Good Luck in China has held the record of largest bell since it was cast in 2000, but it is a mere 116 tons, less than half the size of Dhammazedi’s.

            The bell was not a matter of ego, like the Great Pyramids or other enormous, over-compensatory  structures created by mankind. Dhammazdi was a devout Buddhist, and the bell was cast to be presented as a gift to Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred shrine.

            In the early 1500s, European explorers began making contacts in Lower Burma. A Portuguese warlord and mercenary named Filipe de Brito e Nicote arrived in Lower Burma sometime in the 1590s. After sacking several cities, The King of Arakan appointed de Brito as governor of Syriam, a major port city, in 1599. Ever the greedy mercenary, de Brito continued to expand his reach and in 1603 declared independence from the Arakanese king, and established Portuguese rule under the Viceroy of Portuguese India.

            In 1608, de Brito removed the Great Bell of Dhammazedi from the Shwedagon Pagoda. His plan was to bring it back to Syriam to melt down and turn into cannons, a needlessly complicated plan. The bell was rolled down a hill and placed onto a raft that was then hauled by elephants to the Bago River. The raft was then tethered to de Brito’s ship to be towed the rest of the way to Syriam.

            Peace and non-violence are central beliefs in Buddhism. Violence destroys inner peace, and without inner peace one cannot reach enlightenment. Perhaps the Great Bell of Dhammazedi sensed de Brito’s intensions, and the sacred Buddhist bell did not wish to be turned into weapons of war. Or perhaps the confluence of the Bago and Yangon Rivers was too turbulent and the bell too heavy. Either way, the raft broke apart and the bell sank to the bottom, pulling de Brito’s ship along with it. De Brito did escape the ship, but fortunately he was executed in 1613 after Burmese forces recaptured Syriam.

            Despite the seemingly precise location of the bell’s sinking, no sign of it has been found. Many people have searched, and one professional diver, James Blunt, has made over 115 exploratory dives using sonar imaging for guidance. There are several factors complicating the process. The water is extremely muddy, making visible poor, there are at least three other shipwrecks in the area, and between the massive weight of the bell and the 400 years it’s spent at the bottom of the river, it’s believed that the bell could be covered in as much as 25 feet of mud.

            Retired Myanmar navy officer San Linn launched a mission in 2014 claiming that the bell had been found and salvaging efforts were being prepared. The claims turned out to be false, with many saying that Linn should be charged with fraud, describing the incident as a “national shenanigan”.

            Unfortunately for de Brito, English poet John Donne would not publish his famous Meditation XVII until 10 years after de Brito’s execution. Had the poem been written earlier, perhaps de Brito would have known “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”, and left the Great Bell of Dhammazedi well enough alone.

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