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Gates of Hell lined with coins

By Richard Giedroyc

"Skeleton Coast" and "Gates of Hell" are among the names given to the area along the northern Atlantic Ocean coastline of Namibia.

“Skeleton Coast” and “Gates of Hell” are among the names given to the area along the northern Atlantic coastline of Namibia.

Are the Gates of Hell lined with gold coins? If the Gates of Hell to which you refer are along the coast of Namibia, the answer is yes.

Gates of Hell is only one name given to this area along the northern Atlantic Ocean coastline of Namibia, also being south of Angola from the Kunene River to the Swakop River. The region is part of the Namib Desert. Local natives call it The Land God Made in Anger. John Henry March called it the Skeleton Coast in a book he wrote about the shipwreck of the Dunedin Star published in 1944. That name typically appears on modern maps of the region. Portuguese sailors dubbed the place the Gates of Hell several centuries earlier.

Ironically, the roughly $13 million in gold coins recently announced to have been discovered there were found on a shipwreck now in the desert rather than in the water.
The shipwreck has been known since 2008. The Bom Jesus or “Good Jesus” was initially discovered by Namdeb Diamond Corporation miners. Records of the ship’s cargo published in the 16th century book Memorias Das Armadas indicate the ship disappeared in 1533. According to the book, the ship was reported to have a cargo including gold, ivory tusks, tin and 44,000 pounds of copper ingots. The area of the shipwreck is known for storms and menacing fogs.

Dr. Dieter Noli is the chief archaeologist for the Southern Africa Institute of Maritime Archaeological Research. He discovered the coins. On June 7 he told Fox News, “The [diamond] mining site concerned was actually located in the surf zone, where the violent action of the waves theoretically made mining impossible. So what the chaps do is push up a huge sea wall with bulldozers parallel to the beach, with the ends running back to the beach. The result is a large man-made lagoon with the surf pounding on the outside. Then they pump the sea water out of the lagoon.”

Noli said, “Having first started doing archaeological work … for the mine in 1996 I had at that point been preaching to them for a dozen years that one day they would find a shipwreck, and to let me know when they do. When asked what exactly I was really expecting to find, I said ‘a Spanish sword and a bag of gold.’”

What Noli actually found would be expected to be encountered in a novel. Noli theorizes the captain ran the ship aground on purpose during a storm. The ship heeled over, then broke up beginning with the superstructure.

According to Noli, “The treasure chest fell free from the captain’s cabin, sinking intact to the seabed, where it was subsequently crushed, pinned down and protected by a massive piece of the side of the ship which broke free from the disintegrating hull.

“As luck would have it,” Noli continued, “we found the treasure chest on day six [of recent excavations]. Academic arguments are all very well, but once you have literally filled your hat with a 25.5-pound mixture of Spanish and Portuguese gold coins (there were indeed swords as well), the value of the site is no longer in doubt.”

Noli said, “Marine organisms may like wood, leather book covers, peach pips, jute sacking and leather shoes, but copper really puts them off their food – so a lot of stuff survived the 500 years on the bottom of the sea which should really not have done so. All this adds up to an extremely unusual situation, which led to truly excellent preservation of an in any event unique site.”

The undisclosed site is within the Sperrgebiet or “Forbidden Territory” jointly supervised by security forces of the De Beers Diamond Company and the Namibian government. The approximately 1,000 miles of desert near the African coastline has been infested with numerous treasure hunters for quite some time.

According to Noli, the coins belong to the Namibian government.

“That is the normal procedure when a ship is found on a beach. The only exception is when it is a ship of state – then the country under whose flag the ship was sailing gets it and all its contents. And in this case the ship belonged to the king of Portugal, making it a ship of state – with the ship and its entire contents belonging to Portugal. The Portuguese government, however, very generously waived that right, allowing Namibia to keep the lot.”

 

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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