Diamond miners in the Namibian desert stumbled across something completely unexpected in 2008 while searching for the diamonds which have attracted people to the region for a century. The puzzled miners called archaeologists to investigate what they had discovered. What has since been revealed is one of the most valuable shipwrecks ever located, a 500 year old Portuguese trading vessel from the Age of Discovery which had been lost for centuries.
Relic of the Age of Discovery
Archeologists and historians are fairly certain that the remains belong to the Portuguese Bom Jesus, though this cannot be proven definitively with the surviving evidence.
The Bom Jesus is only the second intact wreck of an East Indiaman to be discovered. These ships traveled between Europe and Asia on extremely risky and extremely lucrative missions of trade and exploration, returning home with hulls packed with exotic goods if all went well.
In 1533, when the Bom Jesus was lost, Portugal was still at the forefront of European exploration, continuing the efforts begun by Prince Henry the Navigator in the previous century.
The ship set sail from Lisbon in 1533 with a around 300 people from all walks of life on board, intending to reach India and return home with Asian riches in a voyage which would have lasted well over a year.
Unfortunately, the Bom Jesus never made it to India. This kind of global trade was still in its infancy and tragedy was not uncommon for those brave enough to take these voyages through the unknown.
The ship was likely caught in a brutal storm off the Cape of Good Hope and was forced north to the Namibian coast where it ran aground and was smashed to pieces by violent waves and winds.
Protected from treasure hunters by the desert
Archaeologists discovered at least one shoe which still contained bones from the foot which had occupied it at the time of the disaster.
The fate of most of the occupants is unknown, though it is unlikely that anyone survived the wreck. Even if any crew or passengers made it to shore they would have found themselves in what was and still is an uninhabited wasteland.
The misfortune of the Bom Jesus has been a gift to history. In addition to its precious cargo of gold, silver, copper, and ivory, the wreck contains valuable insight into life at sea during the Age of Discovery.
The remoteness of the location and protection from the company which mines diamonds in the area means that the ship has never been touched by scavengers and illegal treasure hunters.
The Portuguese archaeologists who have excavated the wreck hope to eventually display the finds in a museum in Lisbon, meaning that the Bom Jesus can finally return to its home.
The discovery highlights the immense courage and skill of the explorers and traders who pioneered the sorts of international sailing voyages which built the great European empires and made the colonization of the Americas possible.