Twice Overberg Divers Found Gold
Written by Jimmy Herbert
Through the museum’s porthole.
Over the ages, tons of silver and gold were transported around Cape Agulhas on route to the East for the purchase of jewels, porcelain, silks, pepper, tea, tin and other sought after Eastern goods of the time. The bullion (gold and silver) in question was mostly transported as coins or in ingot (a block of metal) form. Bullion was exported to the East for its metal value alone. Almost without exception, gold and silver ingots were melted down, resulting in a close to zero percent survival rate for such artefacts.
Due to underwater discoveries, bullion has become less scarce over the last decades. A group of submariners that, because the bulk of their underwater diving hours has been along the Overberg coastline, one can call them by the name, 'Overberg divers', who contributed significantly to this field.
One such team of discoverers was Brian Clark, Tubby Gericke and Peter Leube, who discovered the wreck of the Arniston in 1982. This discovery resulted in the first gold being found and recovered along the Overberg coastline. Of the 733 groups of artefacts recovered, the bulk was kept together as a collection and donated to the Shipwreck Museum. Amongst these, there were no less than 14 gold jewellery items. This collection is the first gold recovered by Overberg divers.
Another remarkable Overberg group, SEALIT, discovered and salvaged the coin cargos of many shipwrecks. More significantly, they found three ships that had been transporting silver bullion in ingot form, thus reintroducing us to these scarce objects of yesteryear. In the late 1990s, these Overberg divers focused their attention on the Dutch ship, Leymuiden (1771) that they believed still had 20 gold bars lying amongst her bones. This venture took them to the Cape Verde Islands some 7,260km northwest from home, Cape Agulhas. On a desert-like island, their living conditions were extremely primitive, with very little protection from the harsh elements. During the day, sweltering conditions prevailed, and that night it became bitterly cold.
Diving consisted of the repeated acts of three dives per diver, per day of about 90-minute duration each. One day, after detecting a signal from the metal detector, their group leader Gavin Clackworthy started digging in the sand. A kind of crater formed and slowly but surely the hole got broader and more profound. In turn, the alarm of the metal detector got louder and shriller. It is narrated that as Gavin's air was running low, he steadily grew more and more desperate to avoid the embarrassment of having to surface with nothing to show for his underwater efforts of well over an hour.
Suddenly, after fanning away yet another layer of sand, there before Gavin's very eyes lay a most magnificent 4.7kg shining bar of gold - a dream discovery. As is invariably the case with gold, this rare gold ingot (with six prominent markings) came out of the sea dazzling like the day it was made. Its recovery made it the only VOC gold ingot in existence - indeed a unique discovery. As SEALIT recovered no more of these gold ingots, making their bar the world's one of a kind item, thus making it 'priceless'.
With this and other highly significant discoveries, SEALIT left a noteworthy historical footprint. At a time when few bullion ingots were known to be in private or in museum collections, SEALIT presented to the world four different types of Spanish silver ingots off an English shipwreck. Then they went on to discover and recover hundreds of Dutch cast VOC silver ingots and ended off salvaging the only Dutch VOC gold ingot found in modern times.
Commendably, like the Arniston salvors already mentioned, SEALIT donated this unique gold artefact to the Dutch government who in turn placed it on display in a security showcase of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam on March 28th, 2000. Sadly, and unbelievably, on April 20th of the same year, a thief walked in, broke the glass, sprayed four guards with pepper spray and made off with this one of a kind gold bar.
Not many years later, the gold collection of the Bredasdorp Shipwreck Museum, faced a similar fate. During the timeframe, January 6th and January 21st, 2014, thieves targeted the Arniston gold display. Tragically, they were able to walk off with almost the entire gold exhibit, leaving only the gold chain (#3), gold snake earring (#6) and the sword handle (#7). According to Interpol, museums and places of worship are usually of the most common targets. They went on to mention that, "archaeological pieces, antiquarian books, antique furniture, coins, weapons and firearms or ancient gold and silverware" appeared to top the list.
Regrettably, both the VOC gold ingot and the Arniston gold collection found by Overberg divers, are still missing to this day!