By Thomas H. Sebring
In the Hijrah year A.H. 1113 (1702 C.E.) a Mughal trading ship was on its way from India to the Orient to trade for silks, spices and porcelains. To purchase these goods, she carried on board thousands of silver rupees, newly struck at the mint in Surat, India, and which had been carefully packed in thousand-coin bags.
Taking advantage of the equatorial trade winds, the ship rounded the tip of India and headed for the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) off the southeastern tip of India. The ship was caught in a major storm and driven onto the treacherous Great Basses Reef, where she quickly sank.
In the case of Spanish treasure galleons laden with gold and silver from they New World lost on their return voyage to Spain, detailed information regarding their sinking can frequently be found in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. There all details of the outward bound and return voyages of the Spanish treasure fleets were carefully recorded.
Similarly, the Dutch East India Company kept careful records regarding the voyages (and sinkings) of their ships carrying silver to the East to be used in trade. However, there are no comparable archives in India to alert modern-day treasure hunters to the existence of a potential target. The unknown ship therefore remained undisturbed for about 350 years.
At the time of the ship's sinking, India was under the rule of Aurangzeb (1658-1707). the last of the Mughal emperors of India. A harsh and bloody-minded tyrant, he had become emperor by beheading two of his brothers and imprisoning his own father Shah Jahan. Shah Jahan is best known for the exquisite Taj Mahal in Agra, India, which he had built as a tomb for his beloved wife.
The Mughal rulers of India were fabulously wealthy. The magnificent Peacock Throne of the emperors was studded with diamonds, rubies and pearls. ``In November 1665 Aurangzeb permitted the prize jewel in his collection -- the great Mughal diamond, later known as the Koh-I-Noor or ``Mountain of Sight'' to be inspected by an itinerant jewel merchant named Jean-Baptiste Touvernier. Touvernier calculated the weight at 280 carats.
``On the same day Touvernier, watched in amazement as the emperor received in presents more than 30,000,000 livres in jewels, gold and silver -- a royal haul four times that of the personal income of William III of England was granted Parliament a few years later,'' Douglas Botting wrote in The Pirates published by Time-Life in 1978.
Aurangzeb was a religious bigot who was so orthodox in his religious beliefs that he had the Falima, a Mohammedan confession of faith, removed from all gold and silver coins lest it should be trampled underfoot or defiled in some other way.
His policies toward the Hindu majority were extremely oppressive. Hindus could not hold public office and their schools and temples were destroyed. These policies combined with his military annexation of additional territory made his reign extremely unpopular, and by his death in 1707 continual revolt plagued India. His reign was followed by a series of puppet emperors.
In treasure hunting an extremely well-staffed soundly financed expedition with a carefully researched target may experience failure while a fabulous underwater treasure may sometimes be discovered by complete accident. An example is the discovery by three Scandinavian skin divers on a Sunday recreational dive of 8,000 gold ducats and 60,000 silver coins from the Dutch East Indiaman Akerendam, sunk off Runde, Norway, in 1724. The discovery of the ``Great Basses Treasure'' is a somewhat similar occurrence.
In the late 1950s, Mike Wilson, an English underwater photographer, was in Ceylon engaged in skin diving and underwater film projects. A former frogman with the Royal Marine Commandos during World War II, Wilson was an expert skin diver. His diving partner, Arthur C. Clarke, was an accomplished scientist and, author -- past chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, a member of the Academy of Astronautics, the Royal Astronomical Society, and other scientific organizations.
Clarke was a pioneer in the development of the communications satellite. However he is best known as the author of over 50 books, many of them science fiction. His best-known work is 2001 -- A Space Odyssey which was made into a highly successful movie.
In 1961 Wilson planned to film an underwater fantasy. The fantasy was to involve a boy who dreams he is exploring the sea and wakes up to find his dream is reality. To assist in his project and act as actors in the film, Wilson took with him to the film site two boys, Bobby Krieger and Mark Smith; aged 14 and 13. respectively.
The boys were the sons of Americans stationed in Ceylon and, in spite of their youth, were very accomplished skin divers.
The diving took place near the Great Basses Reef off the south coast of Ceylon. The reef was a perfect location for the proposed filming -- filled with underwater caves and grottos. and teaming with a multitude of fish of all varieties. However, the reef was also a very dangerous place to dive -- for 10 months out of 12 the crashing waves and rough weather made diving impossible. Only during April and May were diving conditions acceptable.
On a day during the diving season when the seas were calm but not clear enough for filming. Wilson and the two boys were exploring one of the underwater reefs. Suddenly one of the boys spotted a small brass cannon worn smooth and shiny by waves and sand.
Obverse and reverse of one of the silver Surat Mint rupees carried by the unknown trading ship that was dashed upon the Great Basses Reef off of what is now Sri Lanka. (Surat rupees are Aurangzeb 1113 year 46 with mintmark four dots around a cross)
Exploring further they discovered a number of odd looking clumps. When Wilson broke one of them open, they proved to be masses of silver coins concreted together. In two days of diving they recovered approximately 150 pounds of silver coins. Keeping their end secret they returned to filming their movie adventure and the remaining treasure remained untouched for the next two years.
In 1963, after considerable planning, Wilson and Clarke returned to Ceylon to launch a second exploration of the Treasure site. They were joined in their expedition by Peter Thockmorton, a famed marine archaeologist. In May of 1963, their boat the Ran Muthu anchored off the wreck site and diving began. Almost immediately they began to find both coins and artifacts. In addition to thousands of silver coins, they recovered the wooden stock of a pistol, a copper serving plate, a copper pestle, more cannon and many musket balls and cannon balls. Some of the cannon balls still had traces of gunpowder inside.
In weighing the lumps of coins, it was found that ``for the main lumps the figures in pounds were: 30, 29, 29, 28, 27, 30. Allowing for smaller lumps, loose coins (many corroded or partly covered with coral), and the material sent to the Smithsonian, the total weight of silver we had recovered on the two expeditions was about 350 pounds,'' Clarke wrote in The Treasure of the Great Reef. Each lump represented a bag of approximately 1,000 coins that had been then packed into chests for shipment.
While the coins on the outside of the lumps were badly corroded, when the lumps were broken open, the coins inside were in pristine condition. The coins were all Mughal rupees, minted in Surat. The Persian script on the coins was legible and each coin was marked with the same number --three is followed by a sign that looked like a ``1'' followed by a little ``3'' lying on its back. This was the Arabic three, so each coin was dated AH 1113.
Under the Mughal coinage system in effect at that time, the silver rupee was the equivalent of 16 annas. The denomination was seldom on the coins and silver and gold coins passed by weight. The rupee weighed 10.7 to 11.6 grams. Mughal coinage was struck at a multitude of mints, among which was Surat.
Great Basses coins resurface
Most of the Great Basses treasure coins were disposed of in various ways in the 1960s. However, Clarke continued to hold a large quantity of them for years. He had originally owned 2,466 coins, which included a 30-pound clump of about 1,000 coins.
About 600 of the coins were given to Mendel Peterson of the Smithsonian Institution in recognition of his research assistance to Clarke regarding the treasure. These 600 coins were later sold by Peterson to treasure hunter Carl Fismer, who displayed them in his Caribbean Shipwreck Museum in Key Largo, Fla.
Fismer and photo-journalist Robert L. Knecht teamed up in 1992 and visited Clarke in Sri Lanka. They obtained his participation in a video about the treasure salvage of which Clarke had been a part. During a later visit to Clarke the same year, Fismer and Knecht acquired the remainder of Clarke's treasure rupees. The coins were then offered for sale by the Great Basses Treasure Co. formed by Knecht and Fismer.
Some of the coins were also sold at auction in January 1993 at the Trump Regency Hotel in Atlantic City as part of a sale of coins, jewelry and artifacts recovered from a number of historic shipwrecks.
Coins and artifacts recovered from shipwrecks have a historic significance beyond their intrinsic value. They are linked forever to the dramatic circumstances surrounding the sinking of the ship from the wreckage of which they were recovered many years later.
The coins recovered from the wreckage of the Great Basses Reef shipwreck have a particular fascination. They were part of a silver treasure shipped by the cruel and rapacious Aurangzeb, last of the Mughal emperors, and the son of the emperor who built the Taj Mahal. The coins thus have a direct link with a significant period in Indian history and to two dominant figures of that period.
The coins are made even more interesting by their connection to Clarke.
Editors Note: I thank Fred Borgmann of Krause for sending me a
photocopy of this article from their Library. Proof-read OCR text
posted 2002 July, with permission from
World Coin News, and Author Thomas Sebring in PA-USA
Image of coin from Thomas Sebring collection which was Auctioned by American Numismatic Rarity on 2004 January 6th lot #1679 for $140+15%. .
I have changed in text `Great Barrier' and `Taj Mahal' when used to refer to this treasure to the correct location name `Great Basses' The `Great Barrier' is off the Coast of Australia. Association of this treasure with the `Taj Mahal', for purpose marketing is as silly as associating any Treasure from a US-wreck with the `Statue of Liberty' :-)
See also Surat Silver rupee coin in LakdivaCoin Collection.