The helmsmen sighted disturbing clouds in the southwest, but Capt. de Noronha was in no mood to delay. To avoid but the risk of a few monster waves given his overladen ship was ill-advised. There were pirates waiting for the hesitant. Everyone knew rounding The Cape was no cake walk.
In his wildest dreams de Noronha would never have imagined a cargo as vast as was now in his charge: Several hundred massive ingots to be traded for Mollucan cloves and nutmeg worth twice as much and ten thousand times their weight in copper! Forty-four thousand gold coins and sovereigns for the moguls’ chocolate from Gao and silk from China! And twenty cannon to protect it all, much less the victuals for the men on board!
It was more than 22,000 tonnes that left Lisbon on March 7, 1533, under the watchful if menacing eyes of King Jao III and the representative of Bavaria’s richest merchant, Anton Fugger. The Bom Jesus was the most highly capitalized Indiaman nau ever to sail. It would make everyone unimaginably rich and seal Jao’s alliance with eastern Europe in his quest to subdue Spain.
De Noronha stood on the deck, his great feathers flying in a deceptively tiny breeze, and surveyed his village below. Not a single one of his outstanding crew was idle, rewrapping the bentings, washing the salt off the floorboards, repairing the old masts. Medics were making their routine morning rounds randomly looking down opened mouths for infection, raising pantalons hiding scurvy. A priest waddled over to the two decadent noblemen to continue their frivolous conversation about the adventures they had already started to write about before even landing!
De Noronha smiled wryly. None of the 300 aboard he could see from the deck seemed yet to notice the wisps of cotton in the far southwest that the helmsmen had detected. Even de Noronha turned his vision away from the horizon. No. No delay. His trade hadn’t even really begun. All he had so far was about 100 elephant tusks.
The tusks were presents for King Jao, “The Pious,” since ivory was reserved for Kings and cardinals for their castles and cathedrals, outlawed as commerce to the peon merchant.
De Noronha took on some of the tusks at one of his very first stops, Cape Verde off the newly nicknamed “Costa do Marfim.” But Cape Verde off the tip of Africa in the 16th Century had become almost too developed. Almost every vessel sailing to or from Europe stopped there. Everything was so expensive.
So it was at São Tomé and Principe just off the Guinea coast that he bought most of the tusks. But his trusted agent at Principe told him to reserve some tusk space for possible elephant treasures from the new port of Moçâmedes further south down the Angolan coast. His source told him that clever peoples called the Kasai in the unexplored regions of The Congo were bringing tusks to Moçâmedes that were larger and cheaper.
The wisps of cloud didn’t disappear over the next few days. Crew and priest alike pointed fearfully at the ominous dark blue horizon. The seas churned and a satanic wind rushed out of the south heaving the great vessel off course. Suddenly it was struggling for its life in the most deadly lane on earth, the seas along the Skeleton Coast.
The Skeleton Coast is where the world coldest ocean meets its oldest desert, the Namib. The conjunction is nothing short of satanic particularly in the lore of 16th Century Europe. More early vessels crashed here than anywhere else in the world.
We don’t know when the vessel went down. But 475 years after the Bom Jesus sailed, the diamond company De Boers paid the Namibian government for the rights to a large part of the Skeleton Coast. Company geologists excavating for diamonds found the Dom Jesus in remarkable preservation buried in sand.
Everything was preserved as only a desert can do including the magnificent elephant tusks.
It took forensic elephant researchers more than a decade to obtain the permission then tune their science for a series of outstanding discoveries published last February in Current Biology.
Since then biologists and elephant experts have been studying the DNA results and have come to even greater conclusions published just last week.
The new discoveries are so exact they know now that Captain de Noronha did not buy tusks at the new port of Moçâmedes, which did in fact become the main warehouse for Portuguese ivory by the turn of the 17th Century.
The DNA proves the tusks came from 17 different elephant groups all further north, so likely from São Tomé, or possibly de Noronha was so anxious to get this “little piece” of business out of the way that he paid the premium for tusks on the market at Cape Verde.
But aha! the forensic science is so good that levels of nitrogen compounds found in savanna rather than forests were detected in the tusks. Hardly 20 miles off most of the West African coast up and down from Cape Verde is thick African jungle. So it now looks like de Noronha picked up most of his ivory in São Tomé, since the Guinea jungles have wide and coastal sections which include savanna.
It also establishes an increasingly accepted theory that “forest elephants” prefer savanna when available.
Most importantly scientists have shown that only 4 of the 17 elephant groups remain in the current population, creating a time point to help us understand how quickly elephants were exterminated from Africa.
But why did Dom de Noronha further burden his vessel just at the start of his journey with heavy tusks? He would have to stop at Cape Verde on the way home. Perhaps the venerable captain knew how valuable ivory was as currency to trade for the spices and silk from China. Perhaps he took on ivory not for his “Pious” King at all, but for a silk scarf for his wife.