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Today in history... untold wealth sinks beneath the waves

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Here’s a tantalising prospect for any would-be treasure seekers out there – the mysterious story of the “El Dorado of the Seas”.

That’s the name given to the treasure-laden wreck of the Merchant Royal, which sank somewhere in the sea off Land’s End, Cornwall, on September 23rd, 1641. In the 379 years since then, treasure hunters have searched for the wreck and its contents, rumoured to be worth more than a billion pounds in today’s money.

Built in London’s Deptford Dockyard in 1627, the Merchant Royal spent its last three years afloat as a merchant ship trading with Spanish colonies in the West Indies. With England and Spain for once at peace with each other, it was a prosperous trade for the wealthy merchants who operated the ship and her sister-ship, the Dover Merchant.

In the late summer of 1641 both ships were making their way back to England from the West Indies, laden with valuables, when they were forced to call into the Spanish port of Cadiz. The Merchant Royal had begun leaking badly and needed urgent repairs before continuing her voyage to London.

While in port, a Spanish ship which was also moored there caught fire just before she was due to carry treasure to convert into wages for Spain’s 30,000 soldiers in Flanders. Seeing a chance to make some extra money for his vessel’s owners, the Merchant Royal’s Captain, John Limbrey, volunteered to take on the treasure and deliver it to Antwerp on his way home – for a healthy fee.

His offer was accepted and when the Merchant Royal set out from Cadiz she was carrying at least 500 heavy bars of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver, almost half-a-million pieces-of-eight and other coins, and as much again in fine jewellery and precious stones.

Unfortunately, her repairs had been hastily made and she was now carrying significantly more weight. She began taking on water again soon after leaving port and when heavy weather set in between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, the doomed ship began to sink. Eighteen of her crew were drowned, but Captain Limbrey and 40 of his crew got away in boats and were rescued by the Dover Merchant, following behind.

The ship, though, had gone to the seabed, together with her immense treasure and the fortunes of many merchants. Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to locate the wreck and salvage the treasure, but so far they have all been unsuccessful.

The USA-based Odyssey Marine Exploration company has spent years and invested millions in searching for the wreck. In 2007 it recovered silver and gold coins worth an estimated £360 million from a shipwreck, leading to intense speculation that it had finally located the Merchant Royal. In the event it turned out to be a Spanish galleon, possibly the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank in 1804, more than 60 years after the Merchant Royal.

But it seems the quest for the Merchant Royal might be nearing its end. In March last year a fishing trawler brought up an ancient anchor in its nets, which experts identified as matching the anchor used on the lost treasure ship. The trawler had covered some distance with its nets in the water, so it wasn’t possible to pinpoint exactly where the anchor was snagged, but there is a record of the ‘marine corridor’ the ship had trawled, so the discovery narrows the search area considerably.

That search goes on with renewed hope and energy, because somewhere on the seabed near the mouth of the English Channel lies one of the richest shipwrecks of all time, just waiting to be discovered.

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