In 2013, Deep Ocean Search Ltd, a British-led team, successfully retrieved £34 million of silver coins from a shipwreck in the South Atlantic ocean. Working at a depth of 3.2 miles, the operation set the world record for the deepest salvage of cargo in history. When the news was made public in 2015, it was widely reported that the recovered coins had all been melted down. But in reality, a small number were saved from the melting-pot. Collectors now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own treasure from this record-breaking operation and hold history in their hands.
On a cold November evening in 1942, the SS City of Cairo, a British passenger steamship travelling from India to the UK, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat in the middle of the South Atlantic. At the time of her sinking, few people knew that she was carrying top-secret cargo. A huge consignment of silver coins, which had circulated for decades through British India, was being transported to Britain to be melted down for their high silver content.
As men, women and children struggled in the water, the U-boat that had sunk them surfaced alongside them. Commander Karl-Frederich Merten informed them that the nearest land was the small island of Saint Helena, 480 miles to the north-northeast. Privately, he considered their chances of reaching land or being rescued at sea to be almost zero, and U-boats were forbidden from attempting to rescue civilians on enemy ships. Merten concluded the conversation by saying, “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you”, and then sailed away into the night.
With no distress signal having reached the mainland, meagre rations and only one sextant to navigate their course, the prospects for the 296 survivors huddled together in six damaged and overcrowded lifeboats looked bleak. Yet astonishingly, people were rescued from all six lifeboats. Four lifeboats were picked up after spending thirteen days in the shark-infested waters. Sadly, rescue came too late for many in the two remaining boats. A German vessel picked up three survivors after 36 days, though one later died of her injuries. The last lifeboat remained at sea for 52 days before it was spotted off the coast of Brazil. By that time, only two occupants were still alive.
Of the 302 people who sailed on the last voyage, six were lost on the night of the sinking. Sadly, 93 more would perish in the lifeboats as they waited for rescue, and a further eight would die shortly after being rescued. Against all expectations, 195 men, women and children survived their ordeal and made it safely back onto dry land.
For nearly seventy years, the wreck of the SS City of Cairo and her top secret cargo lay undisturbed on the ocean floor. Then, in November 2011, a company called Deep Ocean Search Ltd began searching for the ship, having been authorised by the UK Ministry of Transport to recover the silver coins on board.
The plan to search for the ship and salvage her lost treasure was the brainchild of deep-sea salvage pioneer John Kingsford, who set up the company. In 1984, he read an account of the sinking by one of the survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Dr Douglas Quantrill, who described seeing boxes of silver coins after the torpedo had blown off the hatches in hold number four.
Secret government papers confirmed that the ship had been carrying silver on her last voyage. A despatch from Embarkation Bombay to the War Office established that she left Bombay (now Mumbai) with 2,182 boxes of silver coins weighing 122 tonnes. DOS researchers scoured key documents about the sinking as they became publicly available. Military records from both sides provided details of how the ship had sunk and the likely location of the wreck.
The scale of the challenge facing the team was formidable. The ship’s last recorded position was about 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa, where the weather, swell, and currents are extremely changeable. Furthermore, there were contradictions between the last known positions of the ship given by the U-boat and the ship’s officers. It meant that the team, which included twenty French oceanographers, would have to search an area of the ocean floor that was around twice the size of London.
A salvage operation at a depth of over five kilometres had never been successfully accomplished before. Nonetheless, Kingsford believed it was possible and signed a contract with the British Government authorising him to search and retrieve the lost silver treasure.
Deep Ocean Search took the survey and salvage vessel John Lethbridge, equipped with sonar and robotics, to the target area and began scanning the seabed for signs of the wreck. On board was a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) capable of working in extreme depths and 11,000 meters of sonar cable which tethered it to the ship. It was slow and laborious work. The ocean floor was littered with rocks and canyons, and the team watched the monitor screen intently as the ROV sent back video. It would take a highly experienced eye to spot a man-made object amongst all the naturally occurring features.
After several weeks of scanning, the team identified a small target that didn’t appear to be a natural occurrence. Kingsford was initially unconvinced that it was the SS City of Cairo because it didn’t correspond to his expectations of how the wreck should look. However, he trusted his team’s view that the seabed looked disturbed, and the curious anomaly was deemed worthy of further investigation. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a shipwreck that had broken into two parts and was partially buried in the silt and mud on the ocean floor. But was this the ship they were looking for?
Images of the wreck site revealed no visible name or builder’s plaque to identify it. So, the team had to analyse photographs and plans of the SS City of Cairo to determine that they had found their target. Eventually, after six frustrating hours, they were able to make a positive identification using the ship’s porthole formation. Then, to confirm their discovery, they saw silver rupees struck with the portraits of British monarchs in hold number four, where they had laid undisturbed for 69 years.
The ship had come to rest at a depth of 5,150 metres (nearly 17,000 feet) which meant that any successful recovery of coins from the site would enter the record books as the deepest salvage of cargo from a shipwreck. By comparison, the RMS Titanic lies at a depth of 3,800 metres (12,500 feet).
Working remotely 3.2 miles beneath the waterline, Kingsford’s team overcame huge technical and logistical challenges to bring almost 100 tons of the silver coins to the surface. The operation took eight months, finally reaching completion in September 2013. Before leaving the wreck for the last time, the ROV left a plaque honouring those who had died. It read,
“We came here with respect.”
The recovered coins worth £34 million were handed over to the UK Treasury as per their contracted agreement, and Deep Ocean Search received a share of the sale. When the British authorities permitted the news to be made public in 2015, it was widely reported that all of the silver rupees had been melted down.
However, that wasn’t entirely accurate.
When the momentous news broke that silver rupees had been recovered from the SS City of Cairo wreck, the Samlerhuset Group began a six-year quest of their own to rescue some of the coins for collectors before they all went into the melting pot. Realising that their customers would welcome the opportunity to own treasure recovered from the deepest cargo salvage in history, the European coin company approached Deep Ocean Search and asked to purchase a batch of the coins.
Their persistence eventually paid off. Almost 22,000 Indian rupees from the record-breaking salvage operation have now been professionally conserved by industry experts, giving international collectors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own these salvaged coins and hold history in their hands.
Speaking about the sale, John Kingsford said,
“It is our wish that the history and amazing story of the SS City of Cairo continues to live on through the silver coins that survived her tremendous ordeal. We are delighted to confirm that the last surviving coins from her treasure have been saved from being smelted and have been professionally restored and made available to collectors worldwide.”
The operation to recover the coins from a depth of over five kilometres will forever stand as a triumph of human engineering, ingenuity, and skill. Furthermore, each salvaged coin from the top-secret cargo provides a tangible connection with the people who used them in British India and who unknowingly travelled with them on the final voyage of the SS City of Cairo.