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Imagine this. You’re out on a traverse, thinking hard about a geological problem that you just can’t seem to solve, when you stumble across something you definitely weren’t looking for: the sub-Sahara’s oldest and richest shipwreck.
That’s what happened to Bob Burrell, head of Namdeb Diamond Corporation’s mineral resource department, when he found a cluster of copper ingots while investigating one of the company’s diamond operations in the sands of Namibia’s Sperrgebiet (German for “Forbidden Coast”) last April.
The ingots turned out to be remnants of a 16th-century Portuguese trading vessel loaded with swag – including thousands of gold coins - for trade in India. Without a bit of luck and Burrell’s keen eye, the bounty may well have ended up in the mine’s crusher.
“The mine had been troubling us for a while because it wasn’t producing the amount of diamonds that we had forecast and we couldn’t figure it out,” says Burrell, a 1972 geology graduate from the University of Edinborough, who was on the brink of retirement when he made the find. “We went to the site to try to solve this geological problem and spent about an hour walking over the area.”
But as the team returned to their vehicles, Burrell felt a niggling dissatisfaction. He borrowed a camera from one of his geologists and returned to the site to take photos for the presentation he knew he would have to give to explain to management why this particular patch of beach sand was not living up to its promise.
While snapping away, he happened to look down. At his feet was a boulder, much the same as all the other boulders commonly found in the gravel deposited at the mouth of the Orange River, where most of Namdeb’s alluvial diamond operations are located.
Only this one was almost a perfect half-sphere with a flat surface, not something you see much of in nature. Burrell’s instinct was to pick it up, but when it proved too heavy, he knew it was no boulder but a mass of pure metal. The other half, cleaved by equipment used to mine the diamonds, lay just steps away with similar “boulders” within eyesight.
Burrell raced back to the vehicles and asked the other geologists to return to the site with him. “When we went back we found a piece of timber and then a couple of bronze pipes, so by the time we left we were sure we had a shipwreck but we didn’t know if it was modern or ancient,” he says.
Burrell immediately contacted Dieter Noli, Namdeb’s resident archaeologist, who was able to confirm that the “pipes” were in fact breech-loading cannons of a type that were popular in the Mediterranean nations 500 years ago.
“If there is one hero in this whole story, it is Bob,” says Noli. “He not only saw what the miners had missed, he immediately stopped the mining, had the area cordoned off and set about finding out more about what was going on.”
During excavation, the site yielded thousands of artifacts including 22 tons of copper ingots trademarked by 16th century German financier Anton Fugger, cannons and swords and muskets, more than 2000 gold coins, and hundreds of elephant tusks.
(The Namdeb team had come across tusks at the site before, but assumed that they were the remains of elephants that had been washed down the Orange River when it was in flood.)
Further investigation by an international team of archeologists has determined that the ship is probably the Bom Jesus, which set sail from Lisbon on March 7th, 1533, loaded with valuables to trade for spices in India. The ship carried roughly three hundred people, among them sailors, nobles and slaves.
Rounding the corner of the notoriously treacherous Cape of Good Hope, the ship ran aground on the desolate southwestern coast of Africa.
The area of the discovery, the Sperrgebiet, remains remote and restricted to employees of Namdeb, a joint venture between the Government of Namibia and De Beers, who have been mining the beach sand for diamonds deposited by the Orange River for decades.
If it hadn’t been for the combination of a geologist’s keen eye and Namdeb’s decision to report the find and suspend mining until the site could be properly excavated, the shipwreck might never have come to light.
“It is diamond mining's gift to the nation, and it is the nation's gift to the world,” says Noli.
Burrell has spent his entire 37-year career with De Beers, looking for diamonds all over southern Africa with varying degrees of success. In just a few months, he will retire to Cape Town’s idyllic Hout Bay, content in the knowledge that he has made one of the greatest discoveries of his generation, even if it was “not exactly what (he) was looking for”.