British Museum blog

The Salcombe Bay treasure

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode From London to Marrakech looks at sunken treasure and global trade networks.

Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

This extraordinary find, discovered at Salcombe Bay in Devon in 1994, provides a glimpse into a fascinating period of history. In 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Barbary Company was established to facilitate trade between England and Morocco. English merchants were excited by the commercial possibilities of obtaining sugar, saltpetre for making gunpowder and gold which was in short supply in Europe at this time.

Stories of the Moroccan ruler Ahmad al-Masur’s 1591 conquest of gold-rich Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa filtered out to the West and increased the desire for trade. A letter from one Laurence Madoc to Anthony Dassel (called ‘a merchant of London’ in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) describes the feat of the conquest: ‘there went… for those parts seventeen hundred men: who passing over the sands for want of water perished one third part of them: and at their coming the Negroes made some resistance but to small purpose.’ Madoc marvels at the quality of gold available to the Moroccan ruler: ‘The rent of Tomboto [Timbuktu] is 60 quintals of golde by the yeere’ (approximately 600 kilos).

Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603) was known as al-Dhahabi, ‘the golden one’. He is said to have paid his functionaries in pure gold; his palace supposedly had golden walls. Legend also has it that during his reign, ‘1,400 hammers continuously struck coins at the palace gate.’ He had excellent relations with Elizabeth I. About a quarter of the coins from the wreck – more than a hundred – were struck by this ruler, and another hundred were struck by one of his sons Mawlay Zaydan (r.1608-27). The rest are mostly coins of other members of the family, down to the 1630s.

How were they acquired? In the souk of any city in the Islamic world, money-changers and dealers in jewellery would have been located together and often conducted both businesses. The fact that much of the jewellery is in pieces suggests that out merchant or sea captain obtained this as bullion to be melted down.

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