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PHOTOS: Sunken British ship with HUGE Indian treasure found

Last updated on: September 28, 2011 13:28 IST

PHOTOS: Sunken British ship with HUGE Indian treasure found

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A British merchant ship, which set sail from Calcutta (Kolkata) in December 1940 but was sunk by a German U-boat before she could reach home with her cargo of 70 lakh ounces of silver (1 ounce = 28.3495231 gm) among other things, has been discovered.

 

The SS Gairsoppa was a 412 foot steel-hulled British cargo steamship that was enlisted in the service of the United Kingdom Ministry of War Transport and sunk by a German U-boat on February 17, 1941.

 

The Gairsoppa was discovered approximately 4700 meters below the surface of the north Atlantic, in international waters approximately 300 miles off the coast of Ireland.


The shipwreck was located using the MAK-1M (deep-tow low frequency sonar system), aboard the chartered Russian research vessel RV Yuzhmorgeologiya. Visual inspection of the site was conducted with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from the Odyssey Explorer.

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Image: The SS Gairsoppa had emergency stern steering which included a stern compass on the top of the poop deck
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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The SS Gairsoppa was a British cargo steamship that began her career in 1919 under the service of the British India Steam Navigation Company. She engaged in commercial shipping activity in the waters off the Far East, Australia and East Africa. By January 1941, the SS Gairsoppa was enlisted in the service of the UK Ministry of War Transport. 

She started her final voyage from Calcutta in December 1940 loaded with nearly 7,000 tons of diverse medium and high-value cargo, including pig iron, tea, general cargo, and a large quantity of silver.

Departing without a military escort, the Gairsoppa and convoy SL-64 sailed the dangerous waters of the Atlantic, intending to rendezvous with convoy HG-63, which was escorted by two warships.

As the convoy reached the northern latitudes, the Gairsoppa, loaded down with a heavy cargo, was forced to further reduce speed due to high winds and ocean swells.

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Image: Ladder leading to the forecastle deck of the SS Gairsoppa
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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As the weather worsened on February 14, 1941, the Gairsoppa, running low on coal and with insufficient fuel to keep up with the convoy, was forced to sail independently and to head for Galway in western Ireland.

On February 17, 1941, German Boat Commander Ernst Mengersen submerged his 66.5 meter-long U-boat 101, and torpedoed the Gairsoppa causing her to sink.

Of the 32 crew members who boarded lifeboats after the attack, all perished except for one survivor who, 13 days later, reached shore at the Lizard lighthouse, United Kingdom.

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Image: The torpedo hole in the hull of the SS Gairsoppa
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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Contemporary research and official documents indicate that the ship was carrying as much as 7,000,000 ounces of silver as well as other diverse cargo, including substantial amounts of pig iron and tea.

The most common research citations, including Lloyd's Record of War Losses, indicate the Gairsoppa carried a cargo of silver worth 600,000 Pounds at the time, which would equate to approximately 7 million ounces of silver.

One record clearly indicates that 2,817 silver bars were loaded at one port and another report lists an unconfirmed amount of silver specie (refers to coinage).

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Image: Skylight and lifeboat cradle on SS Gairsoppa
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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The UK Department for Transport has records that indicate that they paid out an insurance claim for approximately 𧷽,000 of silver bars after the loss of the ship.

 

War Risk insurance was paid out only on privately-owned cargoes. Government-owned cargoes were self-insured.


The government also did not typically record its own high-value specie or precious metal cargoes on manifests for security reasons, often referring to them as "general cargo" or even "nails" or other heavy boxed cargo.

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Image: An intact toilet sits on the bridge deck of the SS Gairsoppa
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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Although extensive research has been conducted, the ultimate value of the cargo will only be known after recovery and determination of the total amount of silver recovered and how much of it, if any, is in specie.

Odyssey Marine Exploration will get to keep 80 per cent of the cargo's value under a Department for Transport contract.

The recovery, planned for next spring, would be the deepest in history and make it the largest retrieval of sunken treasure.

Greg Stemm, CEO of Odyssey, said: "We were fortunate to find the shipwreck sitting upright, with the holds open and easily accessible. This should enable to us to unload cargo through the hatches, as would happen with a ship alongside a cargo terminal."

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Image: Tea chests in a cargo hold of the SS Gairsoppa
Photographs: Courtesy Odyssey Marine Exploration
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