The Worlds Richest Shipwreck
Isles of Scilly The 24th of September 1631 AD
Mysterious at the time, mysterious still, the Dartford-built Merchant Royal sank off Land’s End in Cornwall, or alternatively closer to the Isles of Scilly, depending on which version of the tale you give credence. That location is one aspect of the mystery surrounding the vessel. But the other is rather more dramatic.
The 700 ton vessel had traded in the West Indies and Spanish South America for three years, and though only built in 1627 the voyages had taken their toll on her. With her sister-ship Dover Merchant she put in to Cadiz on the voyage back to England – for once we were not at war with Spain – where she was found to be leaking. In spite of this surely obvious problem, when a Spanish vessel chosen to transport a vast treasure from Cadiz to troops in Flanders burned in port, Merchant Royal was selected to carry out the duty in her place. A leaking English vessel chosen to carry Spanish treasure? Are we wrong to smell a very lucrative rat? Or to wonder why such a vast and heavy treasure was not split between the two vessels?
Surprise, surprise. In heavy weather, conveniently near the English coast but far enough away to be out of sight, the pumps on Merchant Royal gave out on September 23 1641 and she had to be abandoned, swiftly sinking. The one aspect of the tale that does not shout crime was that 18 of her crew died in the vessel, though 40 including her commander, Captain Limbrey, escaped in boats and were rescued. Not unnaturally when the news reached King Charles I on September 30 he made mention of it in a note still in the state papers.
But what did her hold actually hold? A cargo of gold said to be worth up to $1 billion now; plus large quantities of silver bullion, and half a million coins of various types. Add to that list Limbrey’s reputed large personal fortune held in gemstones, and the ship is one of the most valuable wrecks in the world, perhaps the most valuable.
The modern element of mystery surrounding the vessel is that she may have been found in 2007 by an underwater salvage company, though at the time of writing that has still not been confirmed.
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