It was a spring morning in 1533 when a fleet of grand sailing ships pulled away from Lisbon harbor, bound for the lands of the Indian Ocean. They were laden with treasure and trade goods which would be exchanged for the exotic spices of the East. One of the ships was the Bom Jesus. But nobody onboard that day knew that this vessel and her crew would never be seen in Lisbon again.
That voyage had set sail when King John III was on the Portuguese throne. He was known as “The Colonizer,” and during his rule Portugal greatly extended her colonial territories. He was noted for developing the country’s lucrative trade in spices such as pepper, cloves and nutmeg, from countries such as India.
Portuguese maritime expertise made this trade possible at a time when, for Europeans, places such as India, Zanzibar and Mombasa were almost impossibly remote. The Portuguese traveled across the world thanks to their innovative navigational skills and their sturdy ships called naus, or carracks in English.
Carracks were ocean-going vessels equipped with three or four masts. The Portuguese had developed these ships through the 15th century as their explorations took them further south down Africa. As the distances traveled grew, the need for bigger vessels that could stand up to ocean storms became more pressing. When trade with far-distant lands became more common in the 16th century, the mighty carracks came into their own.
The Bom Jesus carrack that left Lisbon on March 7, 1533 was captained by Dom Francisco de Noronha and owned by King John himself. It would have carried some 300 souls. These would have included sailors, priests, merchants, soldiers and slaves. The ship’s 15-month journey plan would have seen it sail down Africa’s west coast before rounding the Cape of Good Hope to travel to India and other eastern destinations.
Eventually, those on the ship would have spotted the coast at the edge of the Namib desert in modern-day Namibia. The ship would have been driven perilously close to the coastline until disaster struck when it hit rocks near the beach and sank. And there it would remain in its watery tomb for five centuries.
But the Bom Jesus would never reach its destination. Instead, it was caught in a powerful storm as it sailed down Africa’s west coast, some four months after it had set off. As best as historians can piece together the story, it seems the unfortunate ship may have been pushed hundreds of miles back north up the African coast.
Jump forward to 2014. The coast where the Bom Jesus was shipwrecked is now part of a restricted area of Namibia called the Sperrgebiet (German for “forbidden zone”). It has that name because of what lies among the desert sands and rocks there: diamonds. Furthermore, this incredibly rich diamond mine is owned by a partnership between mining company De Beers and the Namibian government.
In April 2008 a De Beers geologist was prospecting along the coast of the Sperrgebiet. A strange rock, spherical in shape, caught his eye. Picking it up, he realized he had in his hands an ingot of copper. Incredibly, this ingot had the trident-shaped mark of one of the most prominent European financiers of the 16th century, Anton Fugger.
The ingot was of the type used for exchange in the spice trade. It was time to call in the De Beers archaeologist, Dieter Noli. He quickly realized that this was the site of an extremely important wreck. Speaking to The Guardian in 2008, Noli said, “If you’re mining on the coast, sooner or later you’ll find a wreck.” The discovery, he continued, “was what I’d been waiting for 20 years. I was pretty excited. I still am.”
Archaeologists began the excavation of the ship, which was lying just 20 feet below the sea’s level. In 2009 Bruno Werz, director of the Southern African Institute of Maritime Archaeology, told National Geographic, “If it hadn’t been for those copper ingots weighing everything down, there would be nothing left here to find. Five centuries of storms and waves would have washed everything away.”
And what the excavators now began to find among the broken timbers of the wreck was absolutely extraordinary. For a start, there were 44,000 pounds of those copper ingots. But even more exciting was the extraordinary hoard of over 2,000 gold coins representing currencies from across 16th century Europe. Moreover, the coins had an estimated value of almost $12 million.
The majority of the coins, around 70 per cent, were Spanish excelentes, suggesting that there must have been a heavy investment from Spain in this voyage. There were also coins from Venice, France and, of course, Portugal. And those Portuguese coins were a strong piece of evidence to confirm the theory that this was the wreck of the Bom Jesus.
That’s because historians know that these types of Portuguese coins, called portugueses, were only minted between 1525 and 1538. At the end of that 13-year period, they were recalled by King John III and melted down. The same coin was never issued again. So, that narrows down the dates of the sunken ship’s voyage, and ties in with the 1533 date of Bom Jesus’ departure from Lisbon.
Other evidence that points firmly to this wreck on the Namibian coast being the Bom Jesus includes that cargo of copper ingots. Their presence suggests this was a vessel planning to head east for the spice trade, not one that was on a return journey after trading.
Archaeologists have discovered thousands of artifacts in the wreckage including cannon, muskets, swords and elephant tusks. And the wreck of the Bom Jesus is by a wide margin the oldest wreck discovered on this coast, as well as the most opulent. And shipwrecks are not rare here, hence the nickname for this stretch of sea – the Skeleton Coast. In fact, the remains of more than 1,000 wrecks punctuate the coast.
But what happened to the 300 crew that were aboard the Bom Jesus? You might think that they would have perished in the sea. But the evidence does not seem to back this up. For a start, the singular human remains found were some toe bones, still in their shoe, jammed beneath the ship’s timbers.
But those bones account for only one person. What of the others? Dieter Noli told National Geographic, “A winter storm along this coast is no joke. It would have been nasty, with winds of over 80 miles an hour and a huge breaking surf. Getting ashore would have been just about impossible.”
But Noli continued, “On the other hand, if the storm had blown itself out and the ship wallowed ashore on one of those quiet, fog-shrouded days we also get around here, well, now that opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.” Could the mariners have survived? We’ll never know.
When the discovery was made in 2008, there were great hopes for the knowledge about 16th century trade and shipping it would unlock. But, unfortunately, the wreck and its artifacts have languished ever since at a de Beers building in the diamond field. Meanwhile, the gold coins are in a vault in the Namibian capital, Windhoek. The Namibian government say they don’t have the funds to properly preserve, research or display the finds. We can only hope that a solution will soon be found to this frustrating impasse.