Lost Masterpieces

The $2.6 Billion Treasure Still Lost at the Bottom of the Sea

To this day, the wreck of the Flor de la Mar lies in wait, ready for a lucky underwater adventurer to disturb its resting place and strike it rich.

01.08.17 5:01 AM ET

Imagine Lisbon in 1502, during the height of Portugal’s golden age of exploration.

The port is bustling with activity as the empire’s latest crowning achievement is unveiled—a massive new ship that is the finest the seafaring nation has ever built. Clocking in at 118 feet long, 111 feet tall, and 400 tons, the Flor de la Mar was the largest vessel in the fleet. 

From the very first nail that was hammered into the very first board, the Portuguese carrack (or ocean-bound ship) was destined for India to serve the glory of god and country—by conquering and plundering the land of gold and spices that had so enthralled the West. 

One could say that this ship was built with some seriously bad karma.

Regardless, she was a beauty, albeit one with some flaws that would soon be discovered.

But that wouldn’t stop her from outlasting the typical life expectancy of the India-bound boats at the time, plying the seas for nine years before sinking to her final resting place. When that day came, she took with her what many consider to be the most valuable treasure ever to go down with a ship. 

Soon after the grand unveiling in 1502, the Flor de la Mar took her maiden voyage under the command of Captain Estêvão da Gama, a cousin of renowned explorer Vasco da Gama. The crew sailed to India, where they gathered all the spoils that would fit into their hull before pointing their masts for home.

But on the return trip, the ship encountered her first difficulties. It turns out, a boat as big as this was a bit cumbersome and not particularly well suited to the waters it was sailing. In the height of naval indignities, the boat started leaking.

The holes were eventually patched and the ship would reach her home port several months after she was expected, but this problem would never be fully resolved. That didn’t stop the Flor de la Mar from continuing on to a storied career. 

Under a new captain, the ship set sail a few years later for her second merchant voyage to India. But after again springing a series of damaging leaks on the return trip, she was unloaded midway home and rerouted to permanent residency as part of an armada patrolling the East Indies, conquering anything that caught their fancy.

For the next four years, the Flor de la Mar became a battle ship, helping to vanquish some of the area’s most culturally and economically rich cities including Socotra, Muscat, Ormuz, and Goa. For the majority of this time, the ship was part of the squadron under the command of Alfonso de Albuquerque, a nobleman and admiral who would become Portugal’s second viceroy to India. 

In 1511, Albuquerque set his sights on Malacca on the Malaysian peninsula. At that time, Malacca was positioned at the crossroads of the regional trade routes and had become a wealthy international hub filled with riches and treasure. It was a spoil Albuquerque couldn’t resist taking for himself. 

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After a twelve-day siege marred by the typical empire-building activities of violence and murder, the captain’s campaign was declared a success, and not just politically.

In addition to capturing the city as the latest gem in the crown of the Portuguese empire, Albuquerque also plundered the city—and the sultan’s palace, in particular—of its greatest treasures. Despite the Flor de la Mar’s spotty history as a merchant vessel—not to mention its advanced age at this time—Albuquerque decided the ship was the perfect mode of transportation for his vast haul.

He would return triumphant to Portugal, bringing with him boundless riches and facilitating the homecoming after more than six years of what was once Portugal’s greatest ship. 

“The spoils the Portuguese took from Malacca staggered the imagination. More than sixty tons of gold booty in the form of animals, birds, gilded furniture ingots and coinage came from the sultan’s palace alone,” treasure hunter Robert F. Marx and his wife Jenifer Marx wrote in Treasure Lost at Sea: Diving to the World’s Great Shipwrecks. “It took up so much space that the crew had trouble stowing an additional 200 gem-filled chests. The diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires in them, valued at more than thirty million crowns, would be worth billions of dollars today.” 

By December 1511, the booty had been loaded up and Albuquerque was ready to embark for home on the Flor de la Mar. Two days after they set sail, the ship was overtaken by a deadly storm. It survived the deluge for a few hours, until it finally foundered after hitting a reef off the coast of Sumatra. 

“When the ships were sailing along the north-east coast of Pase they were caught in a fierce storm and the Frol (sic) de la Mar, an old ship, was wrecked on some shoals, with great loss of life and of all the treasures brought from Malacca. Albuquerque himself escaped with the utmost difficulty,” wrote Tomé Pires a Portuguese apothecary who kept a journal while living in Malacca from 1512-1515. 

According to various accounts, the ship quickly broke into two after hitting the reef, and the onslaught of waves rapidly smashed the two halves to bits.

Nearly all of the 400 people on board the ship lost their lives in the wreckage, except for Albuquerque, who escaped with several of his officers on the 16th-century equivalent of a life-boat. They quickly rowed away with only the clothes on their backs, leaving their treasure—now estimated to be worth around $2.6 billion—behind. 

Despite many attempts, the location of the wreckage and the loot it contained has never been found. 

Among the most serious expeditions to discover this lost treasure was the work of South East Asia Salvage, a company from Singapore who received permission from Indonesia in 1989 to search for the sunken ship.

Their expedition was joined by Marx, who claims in Treasure Lost at Sea that they discovered, at the very least, the reef they think was responsible for the ship’s demise.

But before the team could begin a proper excavation of what they thought may be the main wreckage site, a dispute broke out between Malaysia, Portugal, and Indonesia as to who had the legitimate claim to any spoils that may be discovered. The expedition was grounded and the location of the Flor de la Mar and its contents remained a mystery.

To this day, the ship, once the prized possession of the Portuguese fleet, lies in wait somewhere near the Strait of Malacca, ready for a lucky underwater adventurer to disturb its resting place and strike it rich. 

Or so popular opinion holds. While most think the lost wreckage of the Flor de la Mar protects the wealthiest treasure that has ever been buried at sea, there have been some quiet murmurings over the years that the riches may no longer be quite as big as they once were. 

Some say, after being left behind by Albuquerque, a few of the ship’s passengers survived. After the storm ceased its deadly antics, the locals, maybe with the help of these survivors, recovered some of the Flor de la Mar’s riches before the remainder settled to the bottom of the sea, lost forever.