Sometime around 1891 a group of beche-de-mer fishermen stumbled upon a huge hoard of Spanish silver coins on the eastern entrance to Torres Strait. The men had been out searching for trepang in the shallow waters around Ashmore Reef when they made the discovery.
It was low tide and much of the reef was exposed, when one of them came across a coral-encrusted anchor fluke jutting from the surface. He and his mates began chipping away to uncover the relic, never imagining what they might find.
The anchor finally broke free from the surrounding coral, revealing a pile of silver coins fused together by time and salt water. Buoyed by the find they kept searching and in time uncovered a staggering 450 kgs (900 pounds) of silver. It took them two trips to carry it all back to Somerset, the fishing and cattle station owned by Frank Jardine, the boat’s owner.
At the time it was supposed the coins had been carried on a Spanish ship on its way to Manilla to pay the wages of the civil and military staff stationed there. Either that, or it was to be used to purchase spices from traders in the Indonesian Archipelago further to the west. Regardless, it had ended its voyage on that remote coral outcrop many years earlier, for the ship’s timbers had long rotted away.
But, it was not a Spanish Galleon they had discovered. It was the remains of the English brig, Sun, which was lost in Torres Strait in May 1826. Earlier in that year it had delivered a cargo of Chinese tea to Hobart and Sydney. In Sydney it took on a cargo of 30-40,000 Spanish silver dollars belonging to a local merchant.
At the time one Spanish dollar was worth 4 shillings and 4 pence. It was valued at about £2,000 at the time. In today’s money the silver content alone would be worth nearly half a million Australian dollars.
The Sun sailed from Sydney on 7 May bound for Singapore by way of Torres Strait. But it never made it there. Its voyage was cut short three weeks later when it struck a submerged reef as it tried to navigate those dangerous waters between Cape York and New Guinea.
The ship started breaking up almost immediately. The crew took to the longboat and jollyboat and started making for Murray Island about 60kms (30 nm) to the west. They didn’t have time to grab any food or water, but fortunately it took them only two days to sight land.
As fate would have it, just as their safety seemed assured, the longboat struck a reef and was swamped, spilling all the occupants into the water. The first and second mates plus 22 lascar sailors drowned.
The jollyboat with the ship’s captain plus 11 others reached Murray Island and were cared for by the Islanders until a passing ship took the castaways off three days later.
The silver went down with the ship and lay there undisturbed for 65 years. Frank Jardine took the lion’s share of his fishermen’s find. He reportedly had some of the coins melted down and made into a silver serving plate for the Jardine Homestead.
© Copyright C.J. Ison, Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2021.
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