Down among the Dead Men: The Waters Surrounding the Remote Cape Verde Islands Are a Graveyard, Littered with the Skeletal Remains of More Than 600 Ships. Aisling Irwin Meets the Marine Archaeologists Exploring These Tragic Treasure Troves, Centuries after They Were Consigned to the Deep. (Cape Verde Shipwrecks)

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AS THE PRINCESS LOUISA BEGAN TO SINK its crew broke into the liquor store. Despairing of survival, they downed bottles of brandy to numb themselves against their imminent demise by drowning. Within a few hours it was all over and the men, together with their cargo of 60,000 Spanish silver coins and 840 tusks of ivory, lay deep beneath the waves. Another ship had fallen prey to the treacherous reefs of the Cape Verde islands.

Two-and-a-half centuries later, marine archaeologists have been excavating the 500-tonne Princess Louisa, their fascinating finds breathing new life into the world of 1743, when it was sailing from London to Bombay as an emissary of the East India Company. The wreck is just one of perhaps 600 scattered around the Cape Verdes, an archipelago of ten small islands located about 500 kilometres west of Senegal, Africa. New England whaling ships, vessels laden with riches for trade in the East, slave boats loaded with their cargo of human despair--they were all equal before Cape Verde's reefs.

"It's virgin territory," says Dr Margaret Rule, a distinguished marine archaeologist known for her work on the raising of the Mary Rose, and one of the supervisors of a six-year project that's evaluating Cape Verde's shipwreck riches. "Shipwrecks are usually hunted, explored and exploited. To find a graveyard of wrecks untouched is very unusual and rewarding."

"Cape Verde is one of the last great untouched shipwreck sites in the world," agrees Piran Johnson, a historian who works on the wrecks from a warehouse-like laboratory between the two plateaus of Cape Verde's dusty capital, Praia, on Santiago island. "No archaeological excavations, aside from a one-year project on one ship, the Hartwell, had been undertaken before we came along," he says. Johnson works for the marine archaeology company Arqueonautas World Wide, which is cooperating with Rule and the Cape Verde Government on the shipwreck project.

"Normally an operation would concentrate on one wreck, but we've excavated 30, with 12 of outstanding historical interest," says Johnson. He walks me through the lab, past shelves laden with treasures. They seem fragile in the harsh Cape Verde light, but each has a story of adventure and peril to tell. Johnson picks up a watch, one of many found on the Hartwell, which sank in 1787 on its maiden voyage to China. "These were made by the Ratners of the day," he says. "Gold filigree on top but cheap tat underneath. They were being shipped out to the colonies to buy off the locals."

But no Chinese would benefit from the watches, nor from the 6,800 kilograms of silver the Hartwell also carried. A month into the journey its crew rebelled over an order to put out the lights and, in the ensuing chaos, the ship was scuppered on a reef off Boa Vista island.

Johnson lifts a square of copper as big as a dinner plate and weighing 2.5 kilograms. It's a piece of rare Swedish copper plate currency, which the divers have retrieved in abundance from one of the largest ships afloat at the time, a 1,400-tonne Danish East Indiaman. Its journey to China in 1781 came to a crashing end north of Maio island. Beside the copper plate stands an old green bottle, elaborate glass seals knobbling its sides. Johnson carefully lifts it up to the light so that we can gaze greedily at the ruby liquid glinting within--Cognac from 1800. Divers found it in a wreck off Santiago, provenance unknown.

Santiago is the nation's historical heart. On its east coast lies the oldest and perhaps most tantalising ship--an unknown trading vessel wrecked in the 1600s. It was here the researchers made their most significant find: a mariner's astrolabe. Prior to the invention of the sextant, this 14th-century Arabic device was vital for calculating a ship's latitude, allowing the user to measure the height of the sun above the horizon. Most have long since been melted down, so shipwrecks are one of the few remaining places where they can be found. …


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