Shipwrecked collectibles - top 10 treasures of the sea
Ever since the first ships took to the waves, we’ve been entranced by tales of the deep blue. Faraway stories of buccaneers, blunderbusses and bloody battles have captured the imagination of wannabe pirates for centuries.
Alas, to own some of the buried treasures that decorate those stories, you’d have to cross the seven seas, travelling to the farthest flung corners of the world in treacherous waters – a mighty feat in the days of piracy, fearsome native tribes and maps that read “here be monsters!”
Many of the ships that set sail carrying precious loads never made their destination. But in the years that followed their bounties were brought to the surface and eventually to auction, meaning landlubbers and collectors can now bid their hard-earned pieces of eight without having to commandeer a vessel.
Cast yer spyglass over the top treasures to have emerged from Davy Jones’ Locker.
10. Whisky Galore
Scotland’s choppy waters are no place for the faint-hearted.
During the second world war, a cargo vessel was wrecked off the coast of a small group of islands in the Outer Hebrides. It was carrying 28,000 cases of the finest whisky, destined for Jamaica.
As the bottles floated ashore, locals rushed to the beach and, within just a few hours, most of the ship’s cargo had disappeared – including nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes. Bottles were washing up as late as the 1980s, and in 2013, one auctioned for £12,050 ($19,970).
However, the bottles aren’t thought to be safe for drinking, and you’ll need a stomach of steel before popping the cork and taking a glug.
9. Whydah Gally
A real pirate ship! And the only one to have been pulled from the ocean floor.
The Whydah Gally was originally a slave ship, but was captured by the dread pirate Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy in 1717, soon to be refitted as his magnificent flagship.
It appears Bellamy and his crew just couldn’t handle the huge galley ship, and he managed to run it aground of Cape Cod just two months later – the captain was obviously a firm believer in “driving like you stole it”.
Rumours suggest Bellamy was making a last minute dash to visit his "wench" on Antigua.
Discovered in 1984, the ship has been revealing its treasures ever since, with over four tonnes of gold lying just 14 feet under the waves. Among the greatest finds was the ship’s bell, inscribed “THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716” which led to the ship being authenticated as the only pirate ship ever discovered.
8. Wanli’s China
While the Atlantic was dominated by the slave trade and fierce Caribbean pirates, the seas surrounding China were a hive of trading, yet equally treacherous.
The country’s greatest export was its ceramics, unrivalled throughout the world. 700,000 pieces of the finest bone china were loaded aboard a wooden junk ship during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620), due to be sold across the southeastern continent.
Yet the coral strewn waters off Indonesia and sheer weight of the ship proved too much, and it capsized beneath the waves, where it remained for the next 400 years.
The 700,000 items of blue and white porcelain were only discovered in 2008, and just a small proportion has been brought to the surface since.
With only gold and porcelain able to survive for centuries in salt water, scientists say they have just 10 years before it is too late – all the while, it is at threat from pillagers.
7. SS Thistlegorm
The SS Thistlegorm was a British Merchant Navy ship that was bombed by German forces in 1941, sinking into the Red Sea near Alexandria, Egypt.
Drafted for use in the war effort, the ship was carrying supplies, including Bedford trucks, armoured vehicles, Norton and BSA motorcycles, as well as Bren guns and cases of ammunition.
Sadly, the cars and bikes are all knackered rust-buckets today, but it makes for one of the most impressive diving sites in the region – respect for the loss of life has apparently kept looters at bay.
6. Antikythera treasures
The Greeks were some of the best sailors of the ancient world, but that didn’t stop one of their ships going down off the coast of the island of Antikythera in the 1st century BC.
In 1900, a team of sponge divers unearthed the wreck and were met with a nasty shock. The first diver immediately signalled to be pulled to the surface, on the discovery of hundreds of rotting corpses and horses lying on the sea floor.
As another brave diver went down, he discovered that the corpses were actually bronze statues and pulled a bronze arm to the surface.
The statues may have been valuable, but the real gem was what has become known as the Antikythera mechanism. Thought to be the earliest example of a mechanised clock or astrolabe, the device was lightyears ahead of its time, and is known as the world’s oldest analogue computer.
Such workmanship did not appear again until the 14th century, suggesting the Antikythera wreck set back human progress by several centuries.
5. Mary Rose
One of the most famous shipwrecks in the world, the Mary Rose - a warship in Henry VIII’s fleet - waged war across the oceans for more than 33 years before it was sunk by the French just off the coast of England.
Rediscovered in 1971, the ship was a Tudor time capsule, preserving thousands of artefacts invaluable to our understanding of life in medieval England.
Since being torn from her watery grave, the Mary Rose has been housed at the Royal Docks in Portsmouth and has undergone extensive conservation work.
Meanwhile, the dozens of cannons, musical instruments, navigation tools and medical equipment found on board have been catalogued and are now displayed at the new Mary Rose Museum.
4. The Salcombe Cannon Wreck
Image: British Museum
Now the Greeks may have been known for their sailing prowess in the early days, but the English certainly weren’t.
In fact, while most of the world was well underway with civilisation (the pharaohs were ruling in Egypt, Jesus Christ was still a few centuries away from being born), the British are thought to have been as barbaric as can be.
But in 2010, 300 Bronze Age artefacts were discovered off the coast of Salcombe, Devon, including copper and tin ingots, gold bracelets and bronze swords, suggesting that the Brits traded with the rest of Europe as early as 3,000 BC.
Many of those pieces came from foreign shores, and have now been donated to the British Museum. More artefacts are still being unearthed from the site, which is also the site of a 16th century wreck that revealed coins and jewellery.
3. The British Treasury Shipwreck
Image: Odyssey Exploration
“Never put all your eggs in one basket” is a golden lesson for the British Treasury.
Foolishly, it put 7 million ounces of silver onto one ship – the SS Gairsoppa – in the midst of the second world war, and expected it to survive the journey. At a time when even Fred the Fisherman was at risk from being blown from the water, this was a silly idea.
Of course, a German U-boat sank the ship in the North Atlantic (it didn’t get very far) and £600,000 worth (at the time) was lost to the ocean. In 2010, divers went to recover some of the booty, pulling 48 tons of silver to the surface – the largest known metal cargo ever recovered.
2. The Ship of Diamonds
Unknown to locals, a huge hoard had been hiding beneath the sands on the coast of west Africa for centuries.
22 tonnes of gold, jewels, cannons, swords and thousands of gold coins lay waiting to be found by one lucky beachcomber.
However, the ship was actually discovered by geologists working for diamond company De Beers (like they need any more treasure) in 2008. Yet, although on the company’s mining territory, all the treasure now belongs to the state.
The ship that crashed was the Bom Jesus, a Portuguese ship that had sailed to Namibia in 1533, but was never heard from again. It is one of the most important finds dating from the time of Christopher Columbus.
1. The Ship of Gold
Perhaps the most collectible shipwreck of all, the tale of the SS Central America – or Ship of Gold – is another example of sailors not heeding the age-old eggs/basket advice.
A sidewheel steamer that ran up and down the coast of the United States, the SS Central America was carrying more than 550 passengers and 30,000 pounds of gold when it was sunk by a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas.
The gold on board was worth about $2m, and this rattled the US economy. The public got nervous, and that led to the Panic of 1857, the first worldwide economic crisis, and the US economy wouldn’t recover until long after the civil war.
Ingots from the ship are regularly sold at auction, and always see strong bids.
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