Treasure of the Great Reef

Sir Arthur Clarke describes the discovery in chapter 7 of his book The Treasure of the Great Reef. expanding on the thrill postscript given in his junior book Indian Ocean Adventure published in 1961.

7 Mogul Silver

The first order of business was, clearly, to identify the coins, in the hope that we could discover the wreck's nationality and origin. We were also, quite naturally, interested in their value; though a hundred-weight of silver was obviously not to be sneered at, old coins are always worth more than their mere weight in bullion.

The coins that Mike and the boys had brought back could be divided into three groups. Most of them were cemented together in twenty-five or thirty pound lumps; where one of these had been split open, it was obvious that the coins inside it were in absolutely perfect condition, looking as if they had come straight from the mint. Others were in smaller lumps, where anything up to a dozen had been concreted together and partly overgrown with coral; here again, the coins in the middle were often in excellent condition. The rest were loose specimens, which had been scattered in hundreds over the seabed. Most of these were badly wasted--many being mere wafers of corrosion products that could never have been identified as coins except by chemical analysis; all the silver had been converted into silver sulphide, which is the normal fate of this metal in the sea.

We sorted out a few dozen of the best specimens, and cleaned them up in battery acid, which dissolved away the remaining traces of coral. Now the handsome Persian script was perfectly legible; and so was the date.

Every coin was clearly marked with the same number, consisting of three l's followed by a sign that looks like a 1 attached to a little 3 lying on its back. This is in fact the Arabic 3, so the date was 1113.

We knew that the Muslim world dates its calendar not from the birth of Christ, as we do, 1 but from the Hegira, the day when Mohammed fled from Mecca, which was July 16, 622 AD. So we innocently added 622 to 1113 and arrived at 1735 A.D. This was completely wrong, and is a good example of the dangers facing amateur archaeologists. For the Muslim year is not the same as ours; to the Arabs, in their clear, desert climate, the phases of the moon are of vital importance and their calendar is, therefore, a lunar, not solar, one, containing either 354 or 355 days. So the Muslim and Christian years get out of step at the rate of about three years in every century, and 1113 A.H. is not 1735 A.D., but 1702 A.D.

When we made cautious inquiries of local numismatists, we found that our coins were rupees from the year 45 in the reign of the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb, who held sway over much of India from 1658 to 1707 A.D. They had been minted at Surat, in northwest India, and were the common currency of a large area of Asia in the eighteenth century. The, ship carrying them need not have come direct from India, but the fact that all the coins appeared to be brand new, and all bore the same date, 2 certainly made this appear likely.

We soon made another interesting discovery. When we weighed the cemented coin masses, and calculated how many coins they contained, the answers came out to almost exactly 1,000. It was obvious what had happened; the coins had been packed in bags of 1,000, which had been sealed after counting. (Later, we were to find pieces of sacking from these bags.) When the ship had gone down, the bags had lasted long enough for the outer layers of rupees to become cemented together by the action of the sea. Thus those inside the lump were perfectly preserved, while the whole mass retained the shape of the original bag.

When we read accounts of other treasure discoveries, we were interested to see how often this happens. Perhaps the most successful treasure hunt of all time was that of William Phips on the Silver Shoals, north of Haiti, where a Spanish galleon carrying an enormous cargo of silver went down in 1641. Captain Phips led a salvage fleet to the area in 1687, and recovered coins and bullion to the value of about $700,000 (several millions in today's money). Here is an account, by an eyewitness, of the treasure as it was hauled in:

And so the dollars they hoisted in by whole chests of 2,000 dollars together, for although the chests were rotted off and consumed, yet the dollars, with rust, were so grown together that they hung together as one lump-- although the middle-most of the chest was bright and sound--and not many of them was much wasted by the water.

This was the state of the treasure only forty-six years after it had sunk; ours was in exactly the same condition 260 years later.

All this strongly suggested that we were dealing with a new consignment that had come straight from the mint of Surat. Perhaps our wreck had been a government ship, bringing currency to Ceylon to pay for the many expenses of administration. Or perhaps she was a trader plying on the Spice Route, carrying what was known as ``Silk Money'' to pay for her purchases.

We knew very little about the history of Ceylon and India in 1702, but we started learning fast. It was a period when the British, Dutch, and Portuguese were all jockeying for position in the East, laying the foundations of the empires whose disintegration we have just witnessed in our own time.

In Ceylon, the Dutch were in power--at least, in the lowlying coastal regions; the Sinhala were still masters of the central mountains, and would continue to be for a hundred years, until the British conquered the country. Our first guess was that the wreck had been one of the ships of the Dutch East India Company--that extraordinary trading organization, with its own army and navy, which ruled much of the East like an independent sovereign state.

In the subcontinent of India, the cruel and brilliant reign of the Mogul emperors was drawing to its close. Aurangzeb was the last great name in the glittering sequence: Babur-- Akbar--Jahangir--Shah Jahan--names which can still stir the blood across the centuries. Though only the third in succession of Shah Jahan's sons, Aurangzeb was much the most able, and while his father was still alive, defeated his three brothers in the usual dispute for the throne. For the last eight years of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned, not uncomfortably, in Agra, the city where he had built the world's most magnificent tomb for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, Aurangzeb's mother.

To have ruled India for fifty years was an amazing achievement, yet for all his political cunning, Aurangzeb left a heritage of chaos. He was a religious fanatic and tried to impose strict Muslim ritual upon a largely Hindu population. The result, as it must always be, was a hostile and finally rebellious country. Soon after the old emperor's death in 1707, India disintegrated into the civil wars which paved the way for the Western invaders.

In Aurangzeb's time, British merchants--in the form of the East India Company of London--were already well established in India, though they had been foolish enough to engage in one brief and unsuccessful war with the emperor (1685-87) which had resulted in their temporary expulsion. But they came back, and indeed at this date when our coins were minted two rival British East India companies were functioning--to the confusion of Aurangzeb and the profit of his ministers, who took bribes from both sides with great impartiality.

Aurangzeb died five years after the date shown on our coins; when they were minted, he was already a weary old man of eighty-four, worn down by ceaseless military campaigns and religious. austerities. Few despots can have possessed so much power and obtained so little satisfaction from it. The bigotry which destroyed his empire also corroded his soul, and his faith did not give him the consolation one feels he should have earned. Reading the letters he wrote to his sons on his deathbed, who would wish to change places with the first man ever to rule the whole of India?

I know not who I am, where I shall go, or what will happen to this sinner full of sins. Now I will say goodbye to everyone in this world... . My famous and auspicious sons should not quarrel among themselves and allow a general massacre of the people. . . . My years have gone by profitless... . There is no hope for me in the future. . . . I have greatly sinned and know not what torment awaits me. . ." 3

Aurangzeb's plea to his Sons was, of course, futile. As he had fought his own brothers, so they fought among themselves. And presently, to their great surprise, the British found themselves the masters of India. There was no one else to run it.

1 Actually, we don't; according to most authorities, Jesus Christ was born in 4 B.C. Our calendar has been four years out ever since the sixth century!

2 We have since found one--just one among all the thousands--bearing the date 1096 (i.e. 1685 A.D.). Perhaps it was not part of the main consigmnent, but a loose coin belonging to one of the crew.

3 See The Oxford History of India ( V. A. Smith), chapter on Aurangzeb

Text copyright © 1964 by Arthur C. Clarke