In a bay once haunted by smugglers and pirates, divers are hunting for the remains of a long-lost ship. Laden with a cargo worth millions of dollars, she sank in these waters more than three centuries ago. For years, then, people have searched for the wreck of the President – but to no avail. And yet now their luck has finally changed.
A wild, windswept corner in the far southwest of England, the county of Cornwall is steeped in seafaring myths and legends stretching back hundreds of years. And back in the 17th century, when piracy was at its peak, the area’s rugged coastline and hidden coves witnessed many a terrifying wreck and raid.
But even though the Cornish coast is no longer threatened by pirates, its waters are far from safe. In fact, it’s thought that as many as 6,000 ships have been wrecked off the county’s treacherous shores. And while some of those vessels date from modern times, others reveal a fascinating insight into a long-forgotten past.
One man with a passion for Cornwall’s wrecks is David Gibbins, an archaeologist who specializes in underwater finds. The child of two English scientists, Gibbins grew up exploring the world’s oceans. Indeed, he dived his first shipwreck in Canada when he was just 15 years old.
As an adult, Gibbins has skippered underwater expeditions around the world and authored a series of novels following the fictional exploits of maritime archaeologist Jack Howard. And in 2015 he founded research group Cornwall Maritime Archaeology alongside Mark Milburn, an experienced scuba diver.
With the project, Gibbins, Milburn and a group of volunteer divers aimed to explore various historic sites off Cornwall’s coast. And soon they were uncovering significant finds such as a 17th-century shipwreck at Rill Cove near Helston. They also came across the remains of the Schiedam, a Dutch merchant vessel that sank in Gunwalloe Church Cove around the same time.
However, there was another shipwreck that Gibbins, Milburn and the team had on their radar. They wanted to explore a site that’s believed to be the last resting place of the President, an East India Company merchant ship that sank in February 1684. She had apparently left India laden with treasures – including pearls and diamonds – that are today thought to be worth around $10 million.
But it seems that the President’s voyage had barely begun when danger loomed large. While sailing off India’s Malabar Coast, she was attacked by half a dozen pirate ships, and a violent battle ensued. Eventually, though, the East India Company vessel emerged victorious after her crew scored a direct hit on one of the attacking fleet’s powder kegs.
Apparently, the pirate ship exploded, and the President was able to continue on her journey. The weather was seemingly against the ship, however, and her supplies quickly dwindled. So by the time the crew had reached Cornwall, they were reportedly so weakened by hunger and thirst that they were barely able to control the vessel.
Then, as the President approached Mount’s Bay, she was caught up in a raging storm and smashed into the rocks of Loe Bar. According to a bulletin published some weeks after the incident, the ship had been “beat in a thousand pieces.” The tragedy was so terrible, in fact, that only two men on board had managed to avoid death.
For 300 years, then, the President languished at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, her treasures likely lost forever beneath the waves. But at the end of the 1980s, divers exploring the Cornish coast discovered a collection of cannons on the seabed. Was the elusive wreck ready to give up her secrets at last?
Keen to find out, the heritage organization Historic England granted Gibbins and Milburn a license to watch the wreck. For much of the time, however, there was little to see; not only were any potential relics covered by sand, but they also happened to be located in a particularly challenging spot.
“Loe Bar is usually a dangerous place to dive; the entry and exit are treacherous even with the smallest of waves,” Gibbins told Cornwall Live in June 2018. There was some good news, though. “The recent period of calm weather has allowed us to get in for the first time in months,” he added.
And when the team finally made it to the site of the President, there was a surprise lying in wait. The sands of Loe Bar had apparently shifted, revealing a number of cannons and an anchor on the seafloor. What’s more, because they were diving in an area with no known recorded artifacts, Gibbins and Milburn knew that they were looking at a new discovery.
“With every storm the sand can shift to reveal new treasures,” Gibbins explained. “It was incredibly exciting to see something that nobody has ever seen before.” In fact, the team were the first to uncover no less than seven cannons located around 20 feet beneath the surface of the water.
And according to Gibbins, our knowledge of the President’s fateful journey only adds to the excitement of the find. “It’s very unusual to know that guns on a merchantman were actually used,” he explained. “Especially in such a colorful action and on the very voyage on which the ship was wrecked.”
Milburn, meanwhile, believes that these new treasures are lying where the President first hit the rocks some 330 years ago. Apparently, the vessel may then have drifted to the spot where the first artifacts were found back in the 1980s. “We have probably got the start of the trail; what they found before was the middle of the trail,” he told Fox News in June 2018.
Milburn was also quick to point out that there could well be more relics waiting to be discovered. “What we have to find is the end of the trail,” he added. And even though the team have yet to recover any diamonds or pearls, they have every reason to believe that the President’s booty is still hidden somewhere off the Cornish coast.
But for any would-be treasure hunters, a difficult challenge lies ahead. “It really is a needle in a haystack – it’s a shingle bar, it’s a fluid environment,” Milburn explained. “Diamonds in water are transparent, pearls would look like shingle, [and] we have billions of tons of shingle that are moving all the time.”
But despite the potential difficulties of the search, the team remain hopeful that the ship’s cannons could reveal some exciting treasures. Corroding iron can, you see, supposedly kickstart a process known as concretion, in which sand combines with nearby objects to form a dense layer – essentially bonding any loose artifacts with the weapons themselves. So could some of the President’s precious cargo have been preserved in this way? For now, we must wait to see what future dives uncover.