26 September 2009

An unexpected treasure in the Namibian sands

Namibia is of course famous for its diamonds. Recently, while surface-mining the sands, crews discovered a Portugese shipwreck from 1533 - now well inland because of the shifting sands.

The photos (credit Amy Toensing) show the seawall separating the wreck site from the ocean, some of the 50 pounds of gold coins (Spanish, Portugese, Venetian, Florentine, Moorish), and small quantities of liquid mercuty (probably carried on board for the treatment of syphilis).

From a gallery of pix of the shipwreck excavation at National Geographic.


  1. I hope you do not classify me as a nitpicker. In my defense, I find that researching a possible error leads to data interesting in itself.

    Elemental mercury is not used to treat syphilis .

    Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, AKA Paracelsus, was a remarkable man. He described the use of mercuric oxide ointment treatment of syphilis in 1530. His ideas probably did not spread to a Portugese captain by 1533. There is some suggestion that mercuric salt salves were being used for skin rashes and may already being smeared on luetic lesions.

    Mercuric oxide is a white powder and applied to lesions or possibly injected or inhaled. Elementary mercury is neither used therapeutically or toxic. Incidentally, in most of the literature mercury and mercuric oxide are carelessly interchanged, including in the Wikipedia article on syphilis.

    I would strongly recommend this section starting at page 44 by Walter Sneader, Drug Discovery: a History

  2. I don't mind corrections, and I don't call it nitpicking. I was quoting the NG article, which offered that hypothesis re the reason the liquid mercury was in the wreck.

    One can't discount the possibility that at its destinatin it would be converted to an oxide or sulfide for treatment of lues.

    Or perhaps it was used to float a metallic needle for a compass.

    I don't have anything at home from Paracelsus, but I do have Agricola's De Re Metallica, which is from the same time period (1556). It says [Book X] that quicksilver was used to separate silver and gold, so perhaps some other nonmedical use for it was envisioned.

  3. Gentlemen,

    Quicksilver was indeed used extensively in the processing of silver ore and was carried on outbound Indiamen from Portugal, Espana and Holland.

    Mercury has been recoverd from several such Indiamen wrecks around the globe.

    It was not, however popular the myth, ever used as moveable ballast in Nazi U-Boots.


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