Nearly 250 years ago, a haul of gold coins sank to the bottom of the ocean off the coast of South Africa. On 1 March this year, 405 of them were handed over to the Bayworld Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It was a third of a consignment of 1,200 coins which have come to be known as Clive's Gold.
The coins would not have returned to South African hands had it not been for the alert staff at the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) in Johannesburg. They noted that in 1997, a London auction house planned to put on sale gold coins that their anonymous sellers claimed were part of a booty once belonging to Robert Clive, the 18th century British general.
SAHRA mounted a challenge in the courts arguing that the coins were illegally removed from South African waters. It enlisted the support of the London auction house, Spink and Son, which refused to return the coins to the sellers after hints of impropriety came to light.
In an out-of-court settlement with the prospective sellers, South Africa received 405 coins.
"Had the discoverers of the treasure come to us with their find, we would probably have negotiated an equitable division of the coins between them and the state which would have allowed them to legally dispose of their share," says John Gribble, SAHRA's maritime geologist.
"The fact that they opted for a cloak-and-dagger approach clearly illustrates a lack of respect for South African law and the rights of the public to enjoy and learn about their heritage," Gribble adds, referring to the fact that the mysterious sellers were never identified.
There is a story to be told, nevertheless, and it goes back nearly 250 years.
Robert Clive (1725-1774), an army officer who later came to be known as Clive of India for his military exploits in India, had been handpicked to establish Britain's influence in the Indian Ocean. He set sail from England with a fleet of five British East India Company ships on 22 April 1755 to carry out his mission.
While Clive stayed on his flagship, Stretham, he put his personal fortune in gold aboard the ship, Dodington.
The first half of the voyage was uneventful -- other than the fact that the Dodington, being the superior vessel, easily overtook the others -- the Pelham, Edgecote, Houghton and Stretham.
But after rounding Cape Agulhas off the coast of South Africa shortly after midnight on 17 July 1755 -- almost three months after setting sail -- the Dodington struck a reef near Bird Island in Algoa Bay. …