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6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks

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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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Blue Water Ventures International
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Gold Artifacts Discovered in 19th-Century Shipwreck That Was the ‘Titanic of Its Time’
Blue Water Ventures International
Blue Water Ventures International

On June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski was sailing off the coast of North Carolina, headed for Baltimore, when one of its boilers exploded, killing numerous passengers and causing colossal damage to the ship. It sank in less than an hour, taking two-thirds of its passengers with it. In January 2018, divers finally found the wreckage, and their latest expedition has brought back numerous new treasures, according to The Charlotte Observer, including a gold pocket watch that stopped just a few minutes after the boiler reportedly blew up.

The Pulaski disaster, which the Observer refers to as “the Titanic of its time,” was notable not just for its high death toll, but for whom it was carrying when it went down. The luxury steamship’s wealthy passengers included former New York Congressman William Rochester and prominent Savannah banker and businessman Gazaway Bugg Lamar, then one of the richest men in the region. At the time, the North Carolina Standard called the sinking “the most painful catastrophe that has ever occurred upon the American coast.”

An engraving showing the 'Pulaski' exploding
An 1848 illustration of the Pulaski explosion
Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Divers from Blue Water Ventures International and Endurance Exploration Group (which owns the rights to the site) have located a number of artifacts that support the belief that the wreck they found is, in fact, what’s left of the Pulaski.

While they have yet to find the engraved ship’s bell (the main object used to authenticate a wreck), divers identified a few artifacts engraved with the name Pulaski, as well as numerous coins that were all produced prior to 1838. The 150 gold and silver coins discovered thus far are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today. They’ve also discovered silverware, keys, thimbles, and the ship's anchor.

A close-up of the gold pocket watch
Blue Water Ventures International

And in their most recent expedition, the divers found a unique gold watch that further supports the claim that this ship is the Pulaski. The hands of the engraved solid gold pocket watch on a gold chain—a piece only the wealthiest of men could afford—are stopped at 11:05, just five minutes after the boiler reportedly exploded.

The excavation of the remains of the ship will hopefully illuminate more of its story. Already, it has changed what we know about the ship’s final night: The wreck was discovered 40 miles off the North Carolina coast, a bit farther than the 30 miles estimated in initial newspaper reports of the disaster.

The investigators hope to eventually find evidence that will allow them to pinpoint why the deadly explosion occurred. While such explosions weren’t rare for steamships at the time, the crew may have pushed the ship beyond its limits in an attempt to reach its destination faster, causing the boiler to burst. Expeditions to the wreckage are ongoing.

[h/t The Charlotte Observer]

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Evening Standard, Getty Images
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
$2.5 Million in World War II-Era Cash Discovered Beneath Winston Churchill's Former Tailor's Shop
Evening Standard, Getty Images
Evening Standard, Getty Images

A valuable secret has been hiding beneath the floorboards of a sporting goods store in the UK since World War II. As the BBC reports, about £30,000 in roughly 80-year-old British bank notes was unearthed by a renovation project at the Cotswold Outdoor store in Brighton. Adjusting for inflation, their value would be equal to roughly $2.5 million today.

Owner Russ Davis came across the hidden treasure while tearing out decades-worth of carpet and tiles beneath the property. What he initially assumed was a block of wood turned out to be a wad of cash caked in dirt. Each bundle held about £1000 worth of £1 and £5 notes, with about 30 bundles in total.

The bills are badly damaged, but one surviving design element holds an important clue to their history. Each note is printed in blue, the color of the emergency wartime currency first issued by the Bank of England in 1940.

At the time the money was buried, the property was home to the famous British furrier and couturier Bradley Gowns. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife, Lady Clementine Churchill, were reportedly regular customers.

The reason the fortune was stowed beneath the building in the first place remains a mystery. Davis imagines that it might have come from a bank robbery, while Howard Bradley, heir to the Bradley Gowns family business, suspects it might have been stashed there as a getaway fund in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, as he told the New York Post.

The hoard will remain in the possession of the Sussex police as more details on the story emerge.

[h/t BBC]

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