The Treasure Hunt That’s Taken 260 Years to (Almost) Solve

The Treasure Hunt That’s Taken 260 Years to (Almost) Solve

Robert Clive, known as Clive of India.

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Why you should care

Is Clive of India’s gold still waiting to be found?

It was shortly after midnight when the Dodington struck a reef off South Africa’s east coast near what’s now the city of Port Elizabeth. “In less than 20 minutes,” Chief Mate Evan Jones wrote later, in a 1757 account, the ship “was entirely wreck’d.” Most of the 270 souls onboard perished, but 23 crew members made it onto “some ragged Rocks,” continued Evans. The furious winter storm and the men’s “melancholy Situation” made them “wish impatiently for the day.”

The East Indiaman Dodington had left England some three weeks earlier bound for Madras, India. In addition to human cargo, it carried the personal fortune of privateer Clive of India, who had decided at the last moment to sail on another ship. No one knows exactly what became of Robert Clive’s Portuguese gold coins, although most of them were supposedly auctioned in London in 2001 after a four-year legal wrangle between a mysterious Florida coin dealer and the South African government.

If there aren’t any survivors, a wreck can be lost forever.

Gerry van Niekerk, diver and salvager

When morning came on July 17, 1755, the Dodington survivors, including — fortuitously — the ship’s carpenter and a former blacksmith, found themselves on “a barren Island of Rock about two leagues from the Main.” The flat-topped formation, then, as now, home to a massive colony of gannets, was dubbed Bird Island.

The survivors salvaged the ship’s “jolly boat,” some hunks of salted pork, a cask of flour, candles, gunpowder, carpenter’s tools and “several hogsheads [of] beer,” wrote Third Mate William Webb in his Journal of the Proceedings of the Dodington [sic] East-Indiaman. Not to mention at least one locked treasure chest.

Altogether, the survivors spent seven months “on this miserable Place, subsisting on Fish and Eggs of Sea Fowls” while devising ways to return to civilization. On Aug. 28, three men set off for the mainland in the jolly boat. One drowned in the surf; the other two reached shore, where they endured sleepless nights camped on the beach, surrounded by baying “Tygers.” Then “clacking” Hottentots attacked and stole most of their clothes, a pistol and their mast. A Dutch farmer, who had seen smoke from the sailors’ fires, sent out a search party, but by the time it reached the beach, the two crewmen had returned to Bird Island.

The unsuccessful sally convinced the crew to build a proper vessel using a rudimentary forge and saws fashioned from sword blades. The carpenter “designed molds for the keel and stern and everyone was set to work,” writes Gillian Vernon in Even the Cows Were Amazed: Shipwrecked Survivors in South-East Africa 1522–1782. The caulking was “pitch and seal blubber.”

Roughly a month into the boat’s construction an incident occurred “which has been played down in public diaries but was of major significance in the life of the tiny community,” write Geoffrey and David Allen in Clive’s Lost Treasure. On Sept. 28, the men woke to find the treasure chest broken open and half its contents missing. “Every body denies doing of it,” wrote Jones, the chief mate, “but refuses taking an Oath.”

Pushing aside their suspicions, the men completed their sloop, which they named Happy Deliverance, and launched on Feb 16, 1756. For the next nine weeks, the 30-foot vessel sailed northeast en route to Delagoa Bay (today’s Maputo). There, to their great joy, they found an English vessel, the Rose, which had arrived from Bombay to trade for ivory. A few weeks later, the diminutive Happy Deliverance sailed in a convoy with the Rose to Madagascar, from whence the men bummed a lift to Madras with the surviving portion of Clive’s cargo.

The mystery of the Dodington’s treasure, however, was only just beginning. Despite numerous attempts over the centuries to locate the wreck, it wasn’t until 1977 that two Port Elizabeth divers — David Allen (he of Clive’s Lost Treasure) and Gerry van Niekerk — discovered the bones of the vessel and its scattered cargo. It was now the happy hunting grounds of a 15-foot-long great white shark.

Making liberal use of a shark banger — a 3-foot-long metal rod tipped with a 12-gauge shotgun cartridge — and working closely with the local museum, Allen and van Niekerk legally salvaged tons of artifacts, including howitzers, cannons, wine bottles, copper ingots and hundreds of silver pieces of eight. Clive’s gold, however, was conspicuously absent.

Or was it? Nearly two decades later, 1,200 gold coins came up for auction in London, advertised as “Clive of India treasure.” The seller? An anonymous Florida coin dealer who obtained the cache from anonymous divers who apparently had salvaged them from international waters off South Africa’s coast. A legal dispute followed, but once the South African government received a “tax” of 405 gold coins (current value, about $2.3 million), the rest were returned to the Florida dealer.

So, did the coins really come from the Dodington? And, if so, how did they get to Florida? David Allen committed suicide in 1987, but van Niekerk was happy to discuss the “disappointing” denouement to the story (he and Allen had looked long and hard for that gold). Bird Island was plundered by abalone poachers in the ’90s, says van Niekerk, so there is “a small chance” they stumbled across the treasure.

A more likely explanation, he thinks, is the gold came from another wreck altogether. “If there aren’t any survivors,” he explains, “a wreck can be lost forever.”

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