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History’s Most Incredible Lost Treasure Ships

Written by Dave Page

Ever since mankind started to use ships to transport valuable cargo, there have been legends of lost ship graveyards which conceal unimaginable wealth.

You only have to look at the popularity of such stories as Treasure Island or the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to see just how easily people can become obsessed with the dream of finding lost treasure. And, although a lot of the stories of actual lost treasure are certainly works of fiction, or at least hugely exaggerated, there are in fact still many lost treasures waiting to be found. Today we will look at some of those treasures and the stories behind their disappearance.

The Merchant Royal

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Built in Deptford, London, in 1627, the 700-ton Merchant Royal was a galleon owned by British merchants and captained by John Limbery. During the 1630s, Limbery took advantage of the period of peace between England and Spain and began trading with Spanish colonies in the New World. In 1637, whilst returning from a lucrative trading mission in the Caribbean, the ship stopped off in Cadiz in Southern Spain for badly needed repairs.

Towards the end of her three-year stay, a Spanish ship that had been scheduled to make a delivery of silver coins and gold ingots to France was completely destroyed by fire and Captain Limbery, seeing an opportunity to increase his profits, offered to make the delivery to Antwerp on his way back to London. There has been some speculation that Limbery himself was behind the fire that destroyed the original ship, but no evidence has ever been found to support this theory.

The Merchant Royal set sail from Cadiz in late August 1661 and was immediately joined by her sister ship ‘The Dover Merchant’. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the repairs had been unsuccessful, and the Merchant Royal began to take on water at an rapid rate.  Although the ship was equipped with six pumps designed to deal with just such an emergency, it was not long before all of them stopped working. This, combined with extreme weather conditions, caused the ship to sink approximately 30 miles from Land’s End on the Cornish coast.

Only 18 of the listed 83 people aboard were lucky enough to be rescued by the Merchant Dover. The remaining 65 people were lost along with the vast fortune aboard.

So, just how much, in today’s money, would this vast haul of treasure be worth?

Well, the exact number is almost impossible to quantify. Between various news outlets, treasure hunters and people in Internet forums, the number listed is anything between $250 million and $20 billion.  Fortunately, it is possible to narrow this down a little…

According to a 1641 pamphlet held by the British Library, the ship went down with ‘300,000 in ready boliogne’ (bullion) and ‘100,000 pound in gold and as much value in jewels’.

These numbers are similar to the figures listed in Charles I’s state papers of 30 September 1641.   In these papers he describes the loss of the cargo as ‘the greatest that was ever sustained in one ship, being worth [£400,000] at least’.

If we accept this number as correct, then in today’s money it would be worth approximately

£48.5 million or nearly $69 million. Even if we consider changes in the price of gold and silver and also add the value of the large amount of gold, jewels and other treasures that each individual crewmember is likely to have gathered themselves, the total value of the cargo is estimated to be somewhere between $150 and $300 million today.

At the time of writing the wreck of the Merchant Royal has not yet been discovered. Several high-profile searches have been undertaken, including one by the Discovery Channel’s Treasure Hunters but the closest that anybody has come to actually locating the vessel was in 2019 when a fishing trawler accidentally pulled up an anchor that, after meticulous study, is believed to have come from the Merchant Royal. Even this small find has led to renewed effort by treasure hunters and archaeologists alike.

The Flor de la Mar

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Melaka_Malaysia_Flor-de-la-mar-01.jpgSONY DSC

In Lisbon, Portugal, in 1502, the Flor de la Mar ‘or flower of the sea’ was one of the largest carrack class vessels of the time. The ship’s maiden voyage, also in 1502, saw her travel from Portugal to India on a trading voyage. She would return the next year carrying a huge cargo of extremely valuable Indian spices.

She would attempt to repeat this journey in 1505 but, on the return leg of the journey, the crew would be forced to stop in Mozambique for almost a year so that the vessel could undergo extensive repairs.

In 1507, The Flor de la Mar would make the transition from cargo ship to warship when she participated in the Portuguese conquest of Ormuz. She would go on to take part in the battle of Diu in 1508 and the conquest of Goa in 1510. 

1511 would also see the Flor de la Mar involved in military action when the Portuguese forcibly took control of the Sultanate of Malacca whose capital city, also called Malacca, was believed to be the wealthiest city in the world at that time. Once Malacca had fallen and become part of the Portuguese overseas empire much of that wealth was loaded aboard the Flor de la Mar so that it could be transported back to the court of King Manuel I in Lisbon.

Unfortunately, due to design flaws with the ship, it was incredibly difficult to manoeuvre when fully loaded. This, coupled with many rushed repairs over the years, meant that the ship was perhaps not the best choice for transporting this vast fortune.

When the Flor de la Mar left Malacca in November 1511. Not only was she carrying the previously mentioned riches, but she had also been loaded with a substantial tribute from the King of Siam to King Manuel I. It is believed that, about one month after she departed, she ran into a severe storm along the coast of Sumatra and, whilst attempting to wait out the storm, she was smashed to pieces on the shoreline. One report from the time said that “The ship was wrecked on a beach. As a result, the ship broke into two, and it’s back, which was embedded in the sand, was demolished by the waves. Along with the ship, the treasure was also lost.”

However, another report claims that the majority of the treasure was later salvaged by the Portuguese.  Although many attempts to find the wreckage have been made, nobody has ever managed to conclusively prove that they have found it. According to one treasure hunter, it is highly unlikely that any wreckage would have survived this long due to the fact that the ship crashed on the shore and did not sink in the open sea. Any searches are further complicated by the fact that the alleged crash site is a zero-visibility dive area which makes it highly unlikely that any of the lost treasure will ever be discovered.

Las Cinque Chagas

Built during the1580s in Goa by Constntino de Bragsnza the Cinque Chagas ‘or Five Wounds’ was another Portuguese carrack. Approximately 150 feet long and 45 feet wide, this vessel truly was a giant for its time. Capable of carrying over 1000 passengers along with hundreds of tons of cargo, the Cinque Chagas was an excellent choice when it came to transporting large amounts of spices, treasure and slaves back to Portugal from their Indian colonies.  In 1594, Cinque Chagas set sail from Goa to Lisbon on what would be her final voyage.

Onboard was cargo worth 3,500,000 Portuguese cruzados (the currency at the time), along with 22 treasure chests filled with diamonds, rubies and pearls. Before departing, the captain would also take abord 400 slaves to be sold back in Spain.

From the outset, the journey was fraught with difficulty. Improperly preserved food went bad due to the extremely hot weather meaning that supplies had to be severely rationed. On top of this, it was reported that there was an outbreak of the plague which killed up to 500 of the passengers in one week.

Meanwhile, in England, the then Earl of Cumberland, George Clifford, was making plans to capitalise on the current state of war between England and Spain. During this time, Portuguese and Spanish cargo ships were considered fair targets and Clifford planned to take full advantage of this.

His small fleet of four ships set sail from Plymouth on the 6th of April 1594 and succeeded in capturing several ships off the coast of Spain and Portugal.  On the 22nd of June, as they approached Faial Island, they crossed paths with Las Cinque Chagas

It is believed that the resulting battle lasted for almost an entire day. The English made three attempts to board the Chagas but were repelled by the superior numbers of Portuguese. After regrouping, they would make one final attempt and would ultimately be successful in boarding the vessel. However, at this point fire raged throughout much of the vessel and everybody, English and Portuguese alike, abandoned her to her fate.

The only eyewitness report from the battle states that, “the sea was purple with blood dripping from the scuppers, the decks cluttered with the dead and the fire raging in some parts of the ships, and the air so filled with smoke that, not only we could sometimes not see each other but we could not recognize each other.”

Several hours after the ship was abandoned, the fire reached the stores of gunpowder and there was a huge explosion which caused the ship, and all its cargo, to vanish immediately beneath the waves.

Due to the extreme depths of the ocean in that particular Area, no trace of the wreck, or the estimated half $1 billion in treasure, have ever been found.

The SS Islander

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Built in 1888 by Napier, Shanks and Bell, and owned by the Canadian Pacific navigation company, The SS Islander was a luxury steamer whose sole purpose was to travel back and forth along the inland passage to Alaska.

Due to the luxury, she often played host to wealthy businessman, bankers, railroad tycoons, and anybody else who may have had a stake in the Klondike gold fields.

As a result of this she often carried a large share of the gold bullion that had been checked through the Gold Commissioner’s office in Dawson.

On the 14th of August 1901, the Islander would leave Skagway ‘Alaska’ heading for Victoria ‘British Columbia’.  In addition to the 104 passengers and 61 crew members, the ship is reported to have been carrying $6 million in gold dust and gold bars, this equates to approximately $200 million in today’s money according an online inflation calculator.

According to reports, the journey started out incredibly smoothly with the ship travelling through unusually calm waters for the area. This would all change at about 2 am on the 15th of August when, whilst passing between Douglas Island and Admiralty Island, the ship would collide with a large iceberg that had most probably come adrift from a glacier located in nearby Taku inlet. 

The impact tore a large hole in the front left-hand side of the ship and within five minutes she had taken on so much water that her entire front half was submerged and her rudder and propellers were lifted completely out of the water. 15 minutes later, she would sink beneath the waves.

According to reports, 16 crew members and 23 passengers would lose their lives. However, it is possible that this number may be slightly higher as there were reports of 11 stowaways aboard and these were never accounted for.

One of the surviving passengers, Charles Ross, would later give an account of the sinking to a journalist and the following is a brief extract from the resulting article:

“He and his wife were in bed when he felt the shock. He leapt up, but an officer passed by and told them there was nothing the matter. A few moments later he heard something like chopping, going on above, and went on deck. The largest and best lifeboat was in the water with eight of the crew on board. The lifeboat, said Ross, would have carried forty people. He hurried to his room and told his wife there was danger. Dressing quickly, they went on deck to witness the lifeboat leaving, not thirty feet away. Ross said he called to the men to return but they would not. They stood on the water-covered deck and put on life preservers, but the vessel went down so quickly they had no time to jump.”

Ross would be rescued four hours later and, although suffering from hypothermia, he would go on to make a full recovery. Unfortunately, his wife was not so lucky, her body would later be found floating among the wreckage.

Almost as soon as the shipwreck had been reported, attempts to recover the lost gold would begin. In spite of this immediate interest, it would not be until 1934 that any progress was made. two salvage vessels successfully passed cables underneath the wreck and were successful in transporting it to nearby green cove.  Unfortunately for the salvage team, an 18-meter section of the ship broke away and remained on the ocean floor and it was this section that held the majority of the cargo.

Since then, many attempts have been made to recover the lost gold and although a substantial amount of it has been salvaged from the site, it is believed that the majority of gold dust and smaller pieces have been lost forever beneath the waves.

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