Ship of gold in a sea of diamonds: the untold story of the “Bom Jesus”, a Portuguese East Indiaman lost off Namibia

5:00 pm on Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Contact Organization:
Archaeological Institute of America
Alexandre Monteiro
The astonishing discovery, in April 2008, of a shipwreck loaded with thousands of gold coins and ivory tusks in the fabulously rich, and famously off-limits, De Beers Sperrgebeit diamond mining lease close to Oranjemund, Namibia – started a chain of events that has led to the signing of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage by one country and the questioning on how little another one knows about its own maritime past and heritage. Singled out and identified by the archaeological record and through historical research conducted by the lecturer in German, Spanish and Portuguese archives, this shipwreck site constitutes, in all likelihood, the remains of the Portuguese nau “Bom Jesus” that vanished with all hands in 1533 while on an outward-bound voyage to India. Considered by the Archaeological Institute of America to be one of the top ten archaeological discoveries of 2008 and featured on National Geographic Magazine, the “Bom Jesus” - captained by Sir Francisco de Noronha, a direct descendant of two Iberian kings, Sir Fernando I of Portugal and Sir Henry II of Castile - links two worlds, that of Medieval Europe and that of a Renaissance globalizing world. Jakob Fugger, the German financial tycoon; Giovani de Medici, better known as Pope Leo X; Martin Luther, the theologian; Agostino Barbarigo, the Venetian Doge; Suleiman the Magnificent, Ottoman Sultan; Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor – all will be summoned through the artifacts raised during the rescue excavation of this site. After all, the Oranjemund shipwreck represents not only an heritage of global significance – that of an European ship bound to Asia with a cargo of German copper ingots, West African ivory, and Portuguese, Spanish, Florentine and Venetian gold currency – but also a poignant memento of the daily life of both crew and passengers aboard what was then the longest single sea route in the world. Weaponry, clothing, luxury cutlery and ordinary sailor knives, was well as human remains, all testify to the terrifying fate that befell on that ship, as both nobles and commoners alike were unexpectedly run aground against one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, that of the Namib Desert.