Elephant tusks act as black box for the shipwrecked Bom Jesus

The ship was one of only two intact 16th century sub-Saharan wrecks to be excavated
Elephant tusks act as black box for the shipwrecked Bom Jesus

The Portugese ship, the Bom Jesus, which went missing in 1533, was rediscovered in 2008.

On Friday March 7, 1533, the Bom Jesus set sail from Lisbon bound for India. Sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope, she came to grief on the coast of Namibia. None of the 300 souls on board survived. 

The final resting place of the Portuguese ‘nau’ remained unknown until April 2008, when a geologist found an engraved copper ingot of the type used in the 16th century spice trade. Archaeologists were alerted and a dig commenced; the grave of the missing vessel had finally been discovered.

The Bom Jesus was one of only two intact 16th century sub-Saharan wrecks to be excavated. All others had been plundered. She was carrying hundreds of artefacts, quantities of gold and, strangely for a Portuguese vessel during the ‘golden age’, coins bearing the likenesses of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Richard Collins: Fur seals ride huge Atlantic breakers rolling in at Cape Cross, like the surfers on Aileen’s Wave off the Cliffs of Moher.

Richard Collins: Fur seals ride huge Atlantic breakers rolling in at Cape Cross, like the surfers on Aileen’s Wave off the Cliffs of Moher.

A hundred elephant tusks had been stored under tonnes of copper and lead. The metals were a godsend to the archaeologists; they isolated and protected the ivory from the ravages of the sea. DNA samples, extracted from the tusks, proved to be the nautical equivalent of an aircraft’s black box. They presented a tantalising snapshot of African elephant populations 500 years ago.

The cause of the vessel’s demise, however, remains a mystery, but the Atlantic seaboard of Namibia is notorious for shipwrecks, both ancient and modern. 

A stretch of it is known as the Skeleton Coast; wrecks, commandeered by cormorants, are strewn along its 400km length. Some of the hulks are so spectacular they should have preservation orders. 

But what has turned this coastline into one of world’s largest maritime cemeteries?

There are two main culprits. Oddly, for a location on the Tropic of Capricorn, persistent thick fogs roll in from the ocean. Perhaps a storm blew the Bom Jesus off course and the sailors lost their way in fog.

Fur seals ride huge Atlantic breakers rolling in at Cape Cross, like the surfers on Aileen’s Wave off the Cliffs of Moher. The waves, when I visited, were not in the 12m-high Aileen league, but the seals, rising up in the ‘snot-green’ walls of water, were an unforgettable sight. 

Ship-wrecked sailors struggling ashore in the chilly waters of the Benguela Current would have to emulate them.

Having managed to scramble on to a landscape devoid of people, what would there be for famished sailors to eat? Seal meat? 

The Cape Cross breeding colony, numbering 80,000 to 100,000 animals, is said to be the largest in the world; noisy seals, of all ages from cradle to grave, crowd the shore. The smell is almost overpowering, but you soon get used to it.

The seal city, teeming with life, is in total contrast to the arid moonscape stretching eastwards towards the Namib Desert and the Kalahari. Rainfall seldom exceeds 10mm a year. 

Few terrestrial animals eke out an existence here. Darkling beetles climb to the tops of dunes and open their wing cases to harvest moisture from the driving fog. 

Did the unfortunate Bom Jesus sailors die of hunger and thirst in this austere place?

  • Alida De Flamingh et al. 'Sourcing elephant ivory from a 16th century Portuguese shipwreck.' Current Biology. 2020.

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