Legendary shipwreck reveals treasure trove

Gold ducats from Venice, gold and silver coins from India, Mexico and Spain and much more besides but there is still no sign of the priceless Peacock Throne of the Moguls of India.

Legend has it that the golden, gem-studded throne of Shah Jehan, founder of the Taj Mahal, plunged to a watery grave when the merchant ship Grosvenor crashed into the rocks off the Transkei Wild Coast on August 3 1782.

But that's all it was. A legend. An extravagant falsehood invented to tantalise fortune-seekers to invest in the Grosvenor Bullion Syndicate Ltd in 1923, along with several other syndicates and salvage companies formed over the past several decades.

East London Museum director Gill Vernon is certain that the Grosvenor never carried the Peacock. Nor was it transporting the annual profits of the British East India Company in diamonds and rubies - although there were certainly several wealthy merchants aboard.

Vernon, John Gribble of the South African national monuments agency and a team of Hungarian divers, are anxious that the Grosvenor should be seen now in a new light - not as a monetary treasure ship, but as an archaeological treasure trove which provides a "window" on the past.

The museum hosted a press conference last week at which the media was given a sneak preview of some of the 5 000-odd artefacts recovered recently by a joint venture company comprising the Argos diving company of Cape Town and the Hungarian Octopus maritime archaeological association.

Octopus was formed in 1995 by a group of investors and Budapest divers with a keen interest in maritime history - but with no ocean of their own to explore. Though they spent some time exploring the wreck of the Dutch battleship Bato in Simon's Town a few years ago, their imagination was captured by the myths and legends of the Grosvenor. And in July 1999 they started work in the Transkei after obtaining an excavation permit from South Africa's national monuments agency.

It's an expensive and demanding venture - and though they are legally entitled to 50 percent of the artefacts they find, the Hungarians insist they are not treasure-seekers.

Even if all the recovered artefacts were sold, the Hungarians say they would be lucky to break even.

Excavation costs are rumoured to cost several thousand dollars a week, and the sea conditions at the excavation site are so terrible that they have only managed to get in 18 days of diving over the past three months.

Fortunately, the wreck site is relatively shallow - varying between 6m and 8m. But adding to their problems is the fact that most of the wreckage has literally been encased by the ocean floor. Most of the artefacts are glued into rock-like concretions caused by the chemical reaction of metal and calcium - so they had to be chiselled out carefully and then painstakingly removed and cleaned up on land.

Apart from the coins, they've also turned up a wide assortment of items - ranging from cannon balls to lice combs, to a brass pistol, shards of glass and porcelain, sewing pins, navigational dividers and brass bowls. All this is being carefully classified and logged in relation to the position of discovery.

The eventual plan is to house at least 50 percent of the items permanently in East London Museum, while some could be used for exhibition purposes aboard a full-scale replica of the Grosvenor.

Fifteen people lost their lives when the Grosvenor crashed into rocks and broke up in stormy seas in August 1782. The 123 weary survivors who reached land rested for three days and gathered provisions.

Two men stayed behind and integrated with the local Pondo people, while the remaining 121 survivors set off for the Cape of Good Hope or the Dutch settlements near Port Elizabeth. After three months of walking, only 15 people remained.

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