FALKLAND ISLANDER and Oxford Maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound (*) has broken a two year silence concerning a discovery his team made of a 16th century Portuguese galleon near the tiny island of Mozambique, which sank carrying gold, spices and Ming porcelain.
The wreck is known as the Fort San Sebastian Wreck after the great citadel that is situated on land 200 metres from where the wreck was found. It dates to the peak of the Portuguese empire, an empire that stretched from Brazil to Japan and which was the unchallenged domain of the Portuguese for almost a hundred years.
The gold, in the form of small ?bun and finger' ingots, beads and jewellery, was found on February 24, 2002, during a routine dive in which all that had been found were a few strips of lead that had been used for caulking the hull.
Although his team was overjoyed by the discovery, Mr Bound admitted that he felt some inner sense of turmoil
He said, "In my left hand I held a mangled piece of lead, in my right a slab of gold. I was supposed to be deeply interested in the lead and coolly indifferent to the gold. But the lead told me nothing we did not already know; it added nothing to the sum of our work. I was utterly unmoved by it. But with the gold it was different. It made my hair prickle."
The initial excitement that greeted the discovery of the gold soon began to fade as more and more of it was found, and the realisation grew that the team was in serious danger. If, on the poor malaria-ridden island, anybody realized what had been found, the lives of the team, as somebody rather colourfully put it, "...would not be worth a bent farthing. Even if they were not knifed the wreck would be torn apart in a mini-gold rush."
The nearest centre of civilization was five hours drive through the bush. There were bandits at night and road-blocks during the day. There was little the government could do to help the team. Within the government only the President, the Minister of Culture and their most immediate and trusted associates knew of it. The Minister of Culture insisted to the team that nomination should be made of the discovery until the excavation was over and the gold was safe in government hands.
The gold was smuggled ashore from the site in dive bags and in the suits of the divers. On the team nobody was allowed to speak of it outside the house where they lived, and even in the house the word itself, ?gold', was prohibited; instead the team spoke in hushed tones of the ?shiny' or ?the yellow stuff'.
At first it was simply kept in a cupboard but as more was found it was concealed beneath the floor tiles in Mr Bound's room and he slept on it. "It was quite a stressful time," he admitted.
Eventually the gold was flown to the capital in a light aircraft hidden within a cargo of slightly rancid lobsters. Each lobster had a piece of gold within it. By the time the plane got to Maputo the smell was overwhelming and the cargo was waved through the airport without any delay. The gold is now safely stored in the government bank in Maputo. "We all drew a huge sigh of relief when it was out of our hands," said Mr Bound.
No interest was shown on the island in the blue and white Ming porcelain from the wreck which had been made in 1553 during the reign of the Chinese emperor Jiajing (1522-66).
The porcelain was exquisitely painted with human scenes, mythological animals, birds and flowers. "It is of outstanding archaeological, historical and art historical value," says Mr Bound. "Thanks to our work, Mozambique now has the finest collection of provinenced export porcelain in the entire Indian Ocean basin."
(*) Mensun Bound has also been involved in several projects in the River Plate: extracting the only gun from Lord Nelson's flagship Agamemnon sunk in the coast of Maldonado, Uruguay, and in the recovery of the German battleship "Graf Spee" scuttled in 1939 a few miles from the port of Montevideo.