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02 May 2008 00:00
The final resting place of Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, who in 1488 was the first European to discover the Cape of Good Hope and open up the East Indian trade route, may have been found 500 years after his caravel disappeared in a storm off the south-west African coast in 1500.
Namibian diamond mining company Namdeb this week announced it had found a 500-year-old shipwreck in the so-called Sperrgebiet (forbidden territory) containing a vast treasure of Portuguese and Spanish coins dating back to the late 1400s, as well as tons of copper and more than 50 ivory tusks.
Company spokesperson Hilifa Mbako said the wreck was found by the company’s chief geologist, Bob Burrell, on April 1 within Diamond Area 1 during routine mining operations along the southern Namibian coast.
Namdeb—a 50-50 joint venture between the government of Namibia and international diamond giant De Beers—controls the entire area between the mouth of the Orange River up to Luderitz, about 300km further north.
Access to the area is strictly controlled under Namibian diamond mining laws.
Burrell was first alerted to the find by the discovery of copper ingots and the remains of three bronze cannons.
Archaeologist Dr Dieter Noli, an expert on the Sperrgebiet, later identified the cannons as Spanish breach-loaders dating back to the 1500s. Namdeb, however, kept the discovery secret until this week, when it issued a press release. It has declined to name the specific location of the wreck.
“The site yielded a wealth of objects including six bronze cannons, several tons of copper, more than 50 elephant tusks, pewter tableware, navigational instruments, weapons and thousands of Spanish and Portuguese gold coins, minted in the late 1400s and early 1500s,” Mbako said.
Other company sources said the ship’s wreck included human remains that showed indications the passengers may have been royalty, raising the suggestion that it could be Dias’s caravel, which went missing off the Cape of Good Hope in 1500 during a storm.
Dias was the first European navigator to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, in 1488, thereby opening the lucrative trading route with the Far East. He named the Cape “the Cape of Storms” (Cabo das Tormentas), but King John II of Portugal later renamed it Cabo de Boa Esperanca (Cape of Good Hope).
Mbako declined to speculate on the origins of the ship, but said the Portuguese government was alerted to the find and they expected a team of Portuguese archaeological experts to be dispatched to the site to further investigate the find. “The shipwreck holds more questions than answers,” he said.
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