In Namibia, 1533 Portuguese shipwreck’s relics hidden away

ORANJEMUND, Namibia (AP) — Diamond prospectors in Namibia nearly a decade ago stumbled upon remnants of a shipwrecked Portuguese vessel whose trading journey to India was cut violently short by a storm in 1533. Today the artifacts from the doomed ship, described by archaeologists as one of that era’s most important finds, remain a hidden treasure.

Relics stored in a dimly lit warehouse at a diamond mine on Namibia’s Atlantic coast include bronze cannons, copper ingots, eroded musket stocks, cracked ivory tusks and rusted sword sheaths, but they are seen by only a small number of visitors who navigate sealed doors and other stringent security features at the mine operated by Namdeb, a joint venture between Namibia and the De Beers company. More than 2,000 gold coins from the wreck, most of them Spanish and Portuguese, are in a central bank vault in Windhoek, the capital.

The remains of the ship owned by Portuguese King Joao III, identified by archaeologists as the Bom Jesus, are in limbo in this southern African country where many vessels foundered over the centuries on its treacherous coastline. While Namibia says it needs resources to preserve, restore and display the trove, some archaeologists believe political will is lacking and worry that the chance for valuable research and a tourism bonanza is closing as decay takes its toll.

“It would have been a wonderful bonus for the Namibian government,” said Dieter Noli, who worked at the Bom Jesus excavation site, which had been safe from plunderers in a diamond-mining area called the Sperrgebiet, or “prohibited area” in German.

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The significance of the ship “lies in the fact that it is the only one from that time that is untouched, unlooted,” Noli said. “Therefore, it offers a more complete window into the past.”

Plans to open a Bom Jesus museum in the mining town of Oranjemund, near the shipwreck site, are languishing.

Namibia needs a sponsor to “kick-start” the museum project and Oranjemund has set aside land for it, said Esther Moombolah-Goagoses, head of Namibia’s national museum, which oversees the shipwreck.

Mowa Eliot, a Namibian maritime archaeologist, said the discovery of the Bom Jesus was a “turning point” in Namibia’s appreciation for maritime heritage and that the government is committed to conserving the remains.

Portugal decided not to reclaim possession of…

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