South African shipwreck diver waits more than a decade for treasure
Red tape has kept Charlie Shapiro, treasure hunter, away from the 224-year-old wreck of the Brederode, which is laden with crated-up porcelain, tin and gold from Indonesia and China.
Centuries-old trinkets from rusty buttons to gifts destined for kings take up a room in Charlie Shapiro’s house – treasures from a lifetime spent combing the ocean floor for shipwrecks.
But the wreck diver’s trove is incomplete, as one of his richest recent finds lies waiting in the deep fathoms of the ocean a decade after its discovery, at risk from pillagers.
Shapiro found the 224-year-old shipwreck of the Dutch Brederode 11 years ago, but a series of mishaps has left him still waiting for government to grant him a permit to excavate its 120 million-rand (£10.1 million) cargo.
“That wreck was my baby, that was my life’s work,” Shapiro says of the ship which has dominated three decades of his existence.
From combing archives in Europe and South Africa, to a 16-year search and against-the-odds discovery of a ship considered an amazingly well-preserved archaeological find, Shapiro’s tale is literally of a treasure hunt.
Greed and disagreements broke up the group of salvors that he formed, and his permit to excavate the ship was lost in a whirl of law changes and a government moratorium on all permits, which has only recently been lifted.
Jonathan Sharfman, a maritime archeologist at the South African Heritage Resources Agency, told AFP that the Brederode, sunk in 1785, is a “completely unique kind of shipwreck. It has the potential to be really high profile”.
This means that Shapiro is unlikely to get his permit without in-depth excavation and conservation plans for the ship, which is still laden with perfectly crated porcelain, tin and gold carried from Indonesia and China.
“We just want to ensure everybody is doing what they should do. We can’t just allow it to be ripped out and sold,” said Sharfman.
“It’s a reasonably intact ship… it really is an amazing example. It presents a unique set of archaeological information.”
The ship, which belonged to the Dutch East India Company, is one of an estimated 3,000 shipwrecks sunk by the forces around South Africa’s unforgiving coastline, which have spawned legends of phantom ships around the treacherous Cape.
From the Shipwreck Coast on the west of the country all the way up to Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, these waters have struck fear into the hearts of sailors and many have perished.
Through the damp mist, the famous sea phantom the Flying Dutchman has been seen from time to time, steered by a Captain van der Decken, cursed to sail the seas for eternity after he insisted on rounding the Cape in foul weather.
Some beached ships have become popular tourist attractions in places like the tiny Northern Cape mining town of Koingnaas, but those that sank are difficult to reach, making the South African coastline an underwater museum.
Shapiro and his company have excavated ships such as the British Birkenhead, which sunk in 1852 and which became famous for starting the tradition of allowing women and children to save themselves first.
A section of his home holds perfectly preserved porcelain plates, weapons and valuable statuettes destined for kings of Portugal, France and England as a gift from the king of Siam aboard the Portuguese ship Milagros in 1686.
From a hoard of bloated wine bottles, an old vintage soured by sea water, to scary-looking medical tools encrusted with rust, Shapiro feels the rich historical legacy of shipwrecks is better kept where people can see it.
The permit tussle is a result of the Unesco convention on underwater heritage, which prevents commercial exploitation of ships over 60 years old, and which South Africa’s parliament has still not ratified.
“They want wrecks left in situ for future generations – what’s wrong with our generation? Wrecks are not there forever,” says Shapiro.
Now, he can only wait as his treasure lies on the ocean floor off the coast of Struisbaai, 220 kilometres (135 miles) from Cape Town, where he has already spotted people searching for the wreck site.