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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).

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. And the Cape Verde astrolabe is particularly special. Silver-plated, it's the only sea-going astrolabe known to have been made so finely, undoubtedly crafted for someone of great importance.

To add to the intrigue, the ship was also carrying some extremely unusual cannons with bronze skins over lead and iron chambers. There are only four other known examples of such cannons. "These truly make this wreck astounding," says Johnson. But whose was this vessel with its 2,000 Spanish coins, the latest minted in 16477 Despite extensive research, the archaeologists still aren't sure.

The Cape Verde islands may be "forgotten in an angle of the world", as one of their poets has written, but they were once a centrepiece of Atlantic commerce. The islands lay empty and unexplored until the mid-15th century, when they were discovered by Portuguese adventurers. They lay at the geographical heart of the European expansion taking place at that time--at a crossroads, not just in relation to the landmasses that border the Atlantic, but also relative to the ocean's wind patterns and currents.

The Portuguese made Cape Verde a ship supply station. Within a century, they had added another commodity--slaves bought on the West African coast. As the Atlantic grew busier, the islands also became a trading post for the exchange of gold dust, honey and amber from West Africa, silver from Spanish America, beads from Venice and cloves from the East.

In 1497, Vasco da Gama resupplied in Cape Verde when he stopped in on his way to discovering India. The islands were unwilling hosts to Francis Drake, who plundered them 90 years later. Centuries of Atlantic history have left their mark on Cape Verde: the rise of the British as the supreme naval power; the French Revolution and the unleashing of Napoleon onto the seas; the abolition of the slave trade; and the rise of the USA as the land of the free, a magnet for immigrants. All of these seminal events altered the tides of Atlantic affairs, all of them washed over Cape Verde, and every so often the islands' reefs would grab a fragment of history for storage on the ocean floor.

Stand on the shores of Boa Vista island and it's hard to believe that deadly reefs lurk nearby. White dunes stretch like cusps of icing down the beaches, a light breeze toys with the fishermen. But visit Fogo island, whose sheer flanks rise to a 2,800-metre peak, and it's clear that Cape Verde is a place of elemental forces.

"Some of the reefs are maybe just a metre or so beneath the keel, and in choppy seas the ships just bashed straight down onto them," says Peter Darracott, a diver and conservator who works with Johnson. To make matters worse, the islands are prone to deep sea mists and the thick haze of the harmattan blowing off the Sahara. The waters are still very dangerous, one of the reasons why the wrecks are largely untouched. Adulterated only by the currents and the sea's hungry microbes, each wreck contains a mass of clues to life at the time of the ship's demise--and sometimes the beginning of a long detective journey.

Clues to a ship's identity come from the most humble of sources. A handful of change in an ordinary-seaman's pocket can signpost the trail of ports he visited. A small collection of delicate clay pipes helped researchers identify one wreck as the Leijmuiden, a trading ship of the Dutch East India Company that sank in 1770. Stamps on the pipes revealed who made them and their design revealed when. The researchers also draw on eyewitness accounts--we know about the final brandy-soaked hours on the Princess Louisa via the ship's surgeon, who survived to tell of that drink to the death.

Today's Cape Verdeans are descended from liaisons between the Portuguese and their West African slaves. They seem a race apart, gifted musicians and poets with a culture profoundly moulded by the ocean. In the evening, melancholy music trickles from Praia's bars. Cape Verdeans are doing what they love best--singing of ancestral sorrows over the wailing of accordions and violins. Drifting through the night air, these haunting strains seem the perfect aural backdrop for these lonely islands surrounded by a sea of tragedy.

WHO WAS MS DIXON?

The researchers are sentimental about one item from the Lady Burgess, which sank in 1806 while en route to Madras. Divers mainly found supplies for the army in India including 17 intact 200-year-old bottles of wine. They also found a brass nameplate from a trunk, bearing the name Miss Dixon, which also appears on the survivors' list. "This person is long gone and all of a sudden her name reveals itself, big and bold on a brass plate," says Peter Darracott.

"If we could find her descendants it would be wonderful to present them with this reminder of their ancestor's great adventure," Piran Johnson adds.

Aisling Irwin A Briton born in Ireland, Aisling is currently living in Zambia for a couple of years. "The best thing about my work is embedding myself in a country for a while, absorbing as much as possible, telling people about it and then moving on," she explains. "My favourite place is always where I am at the moment. I'm always delighted to arrive and generally glad to leave." On page 20, Aisling reports on the shipwrecks of Cape Verde. She has previously retraced Livingstone's footsteps and made several trips to Borneo to document efforts to save the orang-utan.
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Author:Irwin, Aisling
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:6CAPE
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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