The early to mid-1600s was a peaceful time for England. While it was at peace with Spain, Captain John Limbrey hired out his services and those of his ship, the Merchant Royal, to ferry gold, silver, and jewels to Spain from the New World. He also carried supplies, troops, and ammunition the other way, making some £10,000 for himself in the process. Quite a nice profit!
However, on his final voyage across the Atlantic in 1641, his ship sprung a leak. This has caused him to put into Cadiz for repairs. While docked there, a fire broke out on a neighboring vessel. The ship that had burned and had been contracted to take a cargo of gold and silver to Antwerp to pay for Spanish troops in Flanders. Glad to add more plunder to his already bulging hold, Limbrey offered to take on the cargo.
He didn't know at the time that his own ship would never make it to its port.
The History Of Merchant Royal
Merchant Royal was a 700-ton ship. It was built in Deptford, London, in 1627. The ship was owned by English merchants when it set sail from the Spanish colonies of San Domingo, in the West Indies, captained by John Limbrey.
In January 1637, armed with 32 bronze cannons, the ship arrived successfully in Cadiz, southern Spain, where it rested until 1640. Unfortunately, during that time, she began to leak badly and underwent extensive repairs. The following summer, the ship employed to transport Spain's colonial loot - silver coins, ingots, and gold - caught fire.
This bullion had been put aside to pay for Spain's 30,000 strong armies, stationed at the time in Flanders. Captain Limbrey volunteered to take the gold to Antwerp as they were on their way back to London.
After this, the Merchant Royal set sail in late August 1641, trailed by her sister ship, the Dover Merchant. The load that they carried was vast.
In total, the Merchant Royal was carrying 100,000lb of gold. This is almost 1.5 million ounces worth around £20 billion at today's prices. The riches this ship carried contained 400 bars of Mexican silver and nearly 500,000 pieces of eight, plus a few million ounces in jewels.
Sadly, disaster struck in 1641 as the Merchant Royal approached the English Channel in poor weather. The bad weather had caused the ship's pumps to break, and it began taking in water. Even as the crew launched the ship's longboat and called for Limbrey to join them, the captain was in dismay. He was adamant he was staying with his treasure, claiming he'd worked hard in Spain to amass his fortune.
It didn't take long for him to reconsider, however, faced with the imminent drowning. Soon Limbrey fired the ship's cannon to alert the Dover Merchant, which came to his assistance. He was the last man to make it off the ship alive. The Merchant Royal went down some 30 miles or so off Land's End.
The Sinking Of Merchant Royal
An estimated 3 million shipwrecks gracing the bottom of the ocean floor are yet to be found. All of these ships tell stories of the people who sailed them. They hold answers to why they ended up at the bottom of the sea, and some hold untold fortunes. The Merchant Royal is one of them.
This ship sailed in the years between 1637 to 1640. During this time, the ship traded with the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. On his last journey, the Merchant Royal was docked in Cadiz. They were on their way home to London but would never make it back. Was this because its captain was greedy enough to take on more treasure from a boat that had burned in the harbor, despite his boat leaking? Or was this due to the unfavorable weather that they arrived near Antwerp?
Whatever it was, the Merchant Royal continued to leak on its journey back and never made it to Antwerp. On September 23rd, 1641, it sank near Land's End. Sadly, there were victims on the last journey of the ship. It took 18 men with it to the depths while Captain Limbrey and 40 men survived in boats.
The survivors were eventually picked up by the Merchant Royal's sister ship, the Dover Merchant, which went sailing after them. All of the treasure on board the ship was lost. The salary for 30.000 soldiers never made it into their hands. Onboard the ship was 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver, and 500,000 pieces of eight and various other coins. All lost to the deeps.
Over the centuries that followed, the bounty aboard the Merchant Royal was proclaimed as one of the most valuable shipwrecks in history. Its estimated value is over $1.5 billion. It was believed to be one-third of England's public funds at the time.
The value of the wreck has made it highly sought after, and there were many salvage attempts. Despite various pieces of the ship being fished out in the past two decades, the exact location of the wreckage was never confirmed.
Recovery Attempts Of Merchant Royal
Since The Merchant Royal is often referred to as the El Dorado of the seas, it is no wonder that many have tried to find and recover the wreckage. It is said that the ship had carried £1 billion in gold and silver (about $1.5 billion). There was confusion as to where the ship had actually gone down, with conflicting eyewitness reports. Original papers relating to its final resting place state that witnesses on another ship calculated that it sank ten leagues (around 35 miles) from Land's End.
In 2007, the Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, found a half-million coins and a number of artifacts off the coast of Florida. This was a $500 million haul that was dubbed the Black Swan. At the time, many initially believed it was The Merchant Royal's treasure.
The treasure was ordered to be returned to Spain in 2014, as it was proved that it belonged to a Spanish 1804 shipwreck of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.
While The Merchant Royal has not been found yet, an anchor thought to be from the ship was discovered by a fishing boat off the Cornish coast in March 2019. Mark Milburn, the co-founder of Cornwall Maritime Archaeology, said:
"It's an admiralty patterned long shank anchor, the right type for The Merchant Royal. From what I see in the pictures it is the same design as ones used in the 17th century."
Still, divers were cautioned against trying to dive down to look where the anchor was found. The anchor was discovered in a notoriously deep area (about 300 feet). This was a serious dive which took a lot of the right equipment. Most divers knew that, so no attempts were made to investigate this site until this date.
If someone ever finds The Merchant Royal, they will have to inform their local coroner's office due to the UK's Treasure Act of 1996. So, even if the gold is found, it doesn't mean that the one who found it may get to keep it - especially if a museum wants the recovered ship.