Parable of a lost Princess
Posted 16 December 2002 - 09:24 PM
The Parable of a lost Princess
By Bob Whorton
The Story of the search, discovery and the archaeological recovery of the British East Indiaman vessel “Princess Louisa” by a team of research divers in the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa.
During the summer of 1998 my partner and I were invited to join an archaeology expedition by ‘Arqeonautas Archaeologica Sub Aquatica’. An ‘Offshore’ commercial organisation funded by shareholders based in Portugal, specialising in the recovery of historic wreck sites. We were to join the diving operation, formally qualify the local diving team, and assist in the location and recovery of specific historic wreck sites.
Preparation and Research
After six weeks of ‘hands-on’ archaeological training based around the Cape Verde’ capital island of Santiago it was time for us to set sail onboard the Projects 46m ex-Dutch Navy Patrol Boat ‘MV Polar’ for the smaller island of Maio, 25km to the Northeast.
Our quest: Search for and locate a wooden ship that sank over 260 years previously under the questionable expertise of its Captain Mr John Pinson, carrying amongst other things two tonnes of silver coins and around twenty tonnes of ivory. Although East India Company memorandum expressed an interest for salvaging the valuable cargo, no record could be found of any recovery actually taking place. Providing a great interest for ‘Wreck Hunters’ and Salvers today.
It is not clear why the ship was travelling through the Cape Verde Islands as the ships legitimate business plan was in the Persian Gulf and India. However, it was more than likely that the Captain had business of his own to attend to at Praia on Santiago.
“Privateering” was a practice common amongst enterprising captains, who became very rich especially when transporting personal or ‘Human’ cargo to the Americas.
As a result of “Privateering” many trading ships put to sea ‘Dangerously’ overloaded, to the point that the lower gun ports had to be sealed to prevent ingress of water. The increase in weight caused a deeper ‘draft’, which in turn increased the possibility of grounding. The normal draft of this type of ship would have been around 6m, but with extra cargo it was often as much as 8m! This was usually the root cause of these Merchant ships grounding as often as they did. The Ballast was itself often part of the saleable cargo in the shape of lead and/or iron bars or ingots, and could not be removed to compensate for extra private cargo. Often extra ‘private’ cargo was added in another Port after the holds were already full.
Arriving in ‘Bay of the Galleons’ in the north of Maio instantly brought home just how daunting our task was; the reef stretches out creating an underwater peninsular with an area of around 20 square kilometres. From sea level, or vantage-points on the shore it was impossible to spot anything useful that might lead us to the wreck site.
As the name suggests the Bay of Galleons had become infamous for wrecking ships, more than obvious the wreck of a steel ship highlighted the reefs potential, its remains receiving an unrelenting battering by the waves. For all we knew it could be sitting right on top of the Princess Louisa.
A great deal of research effort had been done in order to find some indication to the location of the Princess Louisa’ last position, but there wasn’t much to go on after the original 'Company' records were destroyed during the 19th century. Research did however bring to light a letter written by Navy Officer William Gordon, Captain of HMS Hound who reported the loss of the Princess Louisa to the Admiralty, but this gave no real indication of its last position. Gordon went on to state that he had picked up Captain Pinson and members of the crew in Praia en route to Virginia. He put the count as 74 souls lost and 42 saved.
Research also found a copy of the original log of the ‘Winchester’; an ‘East Indiaman’ bound for Madras and consort to the Princess Louisa along this section of the voyage. The log depicts quite graphically the events leading up to the incident, the foundering and the rescue attempts by the Winchester’s crew as the ship was being systematically destroyed in front of their eyes at dawn on the 19th April 1743. Alas, the final resting place of the remains of the ship remained sketchy to say the least leaving us to re-enact dozens of scenarios of where it could have gone down.
Earlier in the season members of the initial survey team made several dives around the reef trying to locate the wreck site in May 98. They had a modicum of success with the discovery of several cannons spread over a small area in 7.8m of water, what made this both interesting and pertinent was the discovery close by of 23 individual Ivory tusks (the P.Louisa was carrying 822). At that time the team were unable to locate the main wrecksite after several intensive searches before having to leave for the Island of Santiago. As the reef was so large it was like looking for the proverbial ''Needle in a haystack''.
Diving the site on the 17th July 1998 revealed nothing more. Digging out a trench along the area proved that this particular site had little to offer except addressing the fact that it may have been the first area of contact by the keel. The cannons jettisoned in an attempt to refloat her damaged hull (common practice in these circumstances), or the final resting place of a section of hull. What was more apparent was the relentless, constant surge on this reef, making it difficult to stay in any one place and typical of conditions in which we would work. Alas, there are very few calm days at this location.
It was decided to conduct searches in the areas worked out in the scenarios, and to increase efficiency we would undertake towline search methods using two draglines behind each of the two Zodiacs. The rest of the day was spent with teams of four divers combing the reef using the known find as a datum, but success evaded us. At one point a local diver and myself discovered two large Cannons on a shallow area of reef, and close by several Bronze nails. After signalling to the Zodiac crew we swam a circular pattern around a cannon, we found hundreds more nails and pins but nothing conclusive. By this time the surface swell had grown to a point that one minute we were only chests deep in water; next we were 2m below. It was easy to see how a ship could be grounded in the radically changing depth, then lifted and dropped by the sea until it fell to pieces. As the conditions were starting to get “Iffy” I signalled the Zodiac to pick us up, but it couldn’t get nearer than the end of a throw rope which could pull us out to deeper water.
After two days however... It was getting to the point where everyone was spending at least three hours a day like a hooked fish, the physical penalties suffered by everyone ranged from blisters through strains to intense back pains, and generally getting worn out. Psychologically, everyone was at an all-time low... The weather worsened, by the 20th July the sea had become a real mean-machine made worse be a stiffening wind. Travelling the several hundred meters to the site by Zodiac was very uncomfortable, short; sharp bangs would unseat you very easily, most ending up on the floor with the waves crashing in. Below the water was likening to an industrial quality washing machine, we were thrown one way and then the other. At the surface if we missed the Zodiac ropes the current would whisk us away, impossible to do anything except stick up a DSMB, float, relax and wait for a pick up. It wasn't too long before several pairs of hands were dragging you aboard.
“There were a few heated debates about the suitability of the conditions but these were always considered a minor priority – shareholders to pacify and all that…”
21st July, 1998: During the their second dive of the day, Edith Murray (My Partner) and team member Mik Carr were undertaking a slow tow-line search over an area carefully worked out the night before. One hour into the search Edith, on the left hand side of the drag noticed a huge pile of lead bars & cannon, she honked at Mik and they both went down for a closer look. It was the wreck site all right.
Mik sent her up to get a buoy from the Zodiac, but the current was so strong she was swept along away from the site, followed by the Zodiac as ever. Returning for Mik moments later a buoy was dropped to mark the spot. They returned to great cheers and congratulations...
On the evening of the 21st, Edith exclaimed
'' Bob, I'm getting really worn down, my backs breaking and I feel pretty dived out”.
I suggested that she should take a few days rest, no one could blame her after all; at 5'4'' and only 114lbs she had outdone the best of us, and never once complained. A reason why everyone onboard gave her respect and why at least three people onboard owed her their lives.
Our first dive on the 22nd allowed for a long lie in before our 10.30 am, 3rd slot; after some respite from the previous days grind Edith felt able to dive & the weather had improved slightly. It felt very exciting to be able to dive on a site such as this knowing full well that absolutely no one had ever dived here before.
Holding onto the side of the Zodiac waiting I could see the familiar shapes of cannons only 6m below and a huge pile of lead bars (Ballast). Descending together we headed for them, spending time looking around, everyone’s eyes wide with amazement.
The remains of the ship’s cargo and armoury were spread over an area of around 120 metres sq.: A testament to the speed at which she was destroyed. The whole sight had become covered in a stone-like concretion but it was easy to pick out recognisable shapes such as cannon, muskets, lead and iron bars. The main area of lead and iron used for the ballast was still stacked, as it was loaded 265 years previously (apart from numerous bars removed over the years by fishermen – now there’s an irony). Nearby heavy cannon had balanced precariously one on another but were now welded together by nature. Large rounded indentations had become etched into the cannons caused by years of ‘Sea Urchin’ abuse. 20m to the SW of the ballast were several stacks of smaller artillery cannon, with singular cannon spread around that must have been the ships own defence; more of these cannon were strewn along the SE of the site. To the north of the site a shallow valley ran between two low rock walls which was littered with bundles of musket, large iron bars and more small cannon. 25m to the east of the valley we found two of the ships anchors, one of which had a broken fluke.
Not at all like a steel wreck site, no visible signs of the original hull remained. Any timbers that are exposed to seawater at shallow depths are quickly infested by burrowing worms and organisms that reduce them to mush in only a few decades.
I remember kneeling at the base of the huge cannons adjacent to the ballast stack thinking to myself ''I hope its Edith who finds the coins it will do her good''.
Seconds later ''Honk, Honk'' screamed her 'Hammerhead' I belted over, she HAD found the coins! My Cyklon trumpeted in elation, there they were hundreds of Silver '8 Reals' glistening in the bright sunlight. It was a real uplifting experience not only for us but also for everyone concerned. The find was scattered around the same area as the muskets, which made sense as the most secure place on any ship for bullion, would have been in the armouries. Importantly, it gave us a clue to the layout of the ship’s hull after it had broken up, allowing us to concentrate our surveys in a grid along the shallow valley.
On the next dive we were investigating a small mound covered with concretion. Carefully removing the debris we revealed hundreds of blue glass onion bottles, the majority of them were in a broken state, but eventually I found one Port Bottle, still corked with the contents intact. All in all a pretty useful days diving!
Diving on this site was very strenuous, in only 6 - 7m of water we were getting the full force of the surge, getting thrown backwards and forwards, banging into rocks and turning upside down, destroying suits, gloves and fins. The surge induced negative pressure across the second stage diaphragms causing momentary loss of breathable air pressure: “Worrying!”
On every dive more and more important evidence was discovered, furthering our understanding of the ship’s layout, packed according to general loading rules of the day. Large square blocks of concretion were discovered, these were the remains of the original coin chests containing large amounts of silver coinage. The coins were dated between 1712 and 1741, increasing the evidence that this site was in fact the ‘Princess Louisa’.
Many of the coins were cemented into the dense concretions, and were in very poor condition. The reason for the coin degradation was due to contamination of the copper content, that had almost separated it from the silver allowing the surface of the coins to become etched and porous. This would require very complicated restoration methods to cure.
Laying out the grid system for this site proved very difficult in the hostile conditions, ropes and pegs would rarely last the day before they were lost. The location of finds was often measured in to the nearest landmark with a bearing for use on the main ‘Site Plan’.
Piece by piece the overall understanding of the site was coming to light with the discovery of key items of cargo.
One of the most pleasing finds for me was the personal discovery of a pewter dinner service that included plates and cutlery handles. One of the local divers found literally a pocket-full of Charles II Crowns, which were in remarkable condition due to their high silver content.
Porcelain, large storage pots and gold dress and jewellery items came up but never any sign of gold coins during that season.
Over the next few weeks the weather became our worst enemy, no reliable forecasting was available for the area so we didn’t know from one day to the next what to expect. However, if the Zodiac could hold its position safely above the site in up to 2m waves then we dived. Difficult would be an understatement, it was hard to hold on and work with any kind of tools, but the fortitude of the team prevailed in the recovery of important artefacts while being literally hurled 20m across the site by the surge. Further excavations in the shallow valley recovered clay pipes, assorted musket shot and large deposits of Mercury.
Ivory that had been stored in the main hold above the ballast was discovered beneath the section of heavy cannons, so much so that the area was literally floating on it. It is difficult to appreciate tooth decay at its worst, but smelling this stuff on the surface however brought it right home!
During September the dive team began to dwindle which was not too surprising, by the middle of September I was the only non-local onboard; Edith having returned home to earn money. Left to run the whole show I became edgy due to the lack of real sleep and illness. However the job had to be done, three to four dives per day, recoveries, logging and instruction, as well as all the bookwork too.
Through the end of September and into October the weather windows began to lessen, high seas making it difficult for the Zodiacs to hold their positions safely, and in some instances the surge strength made it impossible to carry out any practical work underwater. It got to the stage after the heavy rainstorms when we had to stop dives in the south too, as the water running off the land was turning the sea an orange colour. During the ides of October the sea turned green with the twice annual algae bloom, bringing the visibility down to a couple of meters which on its own was not a problem, but coupled with strong surge it becomes possible to get lost after only a few seconds disorientation.
By the end of this period we had excavated artefacts numbering over 2,000, many of which are of great historical importance and over 300 kilo of silver coins. We had also achieved in the region of 2,500 individual dives. I added a further 253 dives to my bulging log.
Leaving the boat in the middle of October for Portugal filled me with mixed emotions, four and a half months of life on the rolling sea had hardened me, but it was time to go. Although numb from the anticlimax I had learned a great deal from this adventure; about life people and myself.
I had shared in elation and disappointment, been subjected to stress and mendacity, but above all I had been apart of some marvellous achievements…
Posted 18 December 2002 - 04:28 AM
Posted 18 December 2002 - 09:45 AM
I will let you know as soon as it's up and running again
Posted 29 December 2002 - 03:08 PM