Shipwreck in the Forbidden Zone

Five centuries ago a ship loaded with gold wrecked off a beach laden with diamonds.

History rarely unfolds like a fable. But consider this: A 16th-century Portuguese trading vessel, carrying a fortune in gold and ivory and bound for a famed spice port on the coast of India, is blown far off course by a fierce storm while trying to round the southern tip of Africa. Days later, battered and broken, the ship founders on a mysterious, fogbound coast sprinkled with more than a hundred million carats of diamonds, a cruel mockery of the sailors' dreams of riches. None of the castaways ever return home.

This improbable yarn would have been lost forever had it not been for the astonishing discovery in April 2008 of a shipwreck in the beach sands of the Sperrgebiet—the fabulously rich and famously off -limits De Beers diamond-mining lease near the mouth of the Orange River on Namibia's southern coast. A company geologist working in mining area U-60 came across what at first he took to be a perfectly round half sphere of rock. Curious, he picked it up and immediately realized it was a copper ingot. A strange trident-shaped mark on its weathered surface turned out to be the hallmark of Anton Fugger, one of Renaissance Europe's wealthiest financiers. The ingot was the type traded for spices in the Indies in the first half of the 16th century.

Archaeologists would later find a staggering 22 tons of these ingots beneath the sand, as well as cannon and swords, ivory and astrolabes, muskets and chain mail—thousands of artifacts in all. And gold, of course, fistfuls of gold: more than 2,000 beautiful, heavy coins—mainly Spanish excelentes bearing the likenesses of Ferdinand and Isabella, but also a smattering of Venetian, Moorish, French, and other coinage, as well as exquisite portugueses with the coat of arms of King João III.

Read This Next

The world is still falling short of meeting its climate goals
What to expect with COVID-19 vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11
Can UNESCO status save the world’s oldest mummies?

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet