Ghostly Image Gallery of the Doomed Golden Vessel is Extracted from the Seabed | Photography
IIt’s one of the most famous shipwrecks ever discovered, a steamer named the ‘Golden Ship’ after it sank in 1857 off the coast of South Carolina with one of the largest cargoes of gold ever lost at sea. The miners who made it rich during the California Gold Rush were among those who brought their hard-earned wealth back to New York, only to lose their lives when the SS Central America was struck by a hurricane, sinking almost a mile and a half under the waves.
When nuggets, bars and coins were recovered from the seabed during various expeditions between 1988 and 2014, the world was stunned. But, with reported values in the tens of millions of pounds, it sparked a complex court case that landed its original treasure hunter in jail.
Now Dr Sean Kingsley, a British maritime archaeologist, is turning his attention to another facet of the recovered artifacts: an astonishing collection of 19th-century portraits that have somehow survived at the bottom of the Atlantic.
He told the Observer: “Photos on glass plate had preserved the faces of miners, merchants and their families, gazing intently at the living of the seabed.”
The portraits are strange, but beautiful. They were the relatives of those who had been on a ship that sank 150 miles off the Carolina coast with the loss of 425 lives. A judge and an actor were among the passengers.
Kingsley said: “There are two ships with iconic names. The Titanic is known as the “Ship of Dreams”. This is called the “golden vessel”. For me, gold is a distraction. The glass plates are the real star treasures of this wreck. There are dozens more out there who I hope will one day be saved as well.
When the hurricane hit, those on board threw away their bags, unable to save their most valuable possessions or their lives. When the steamer sank, the bags floated. Leather and canvas decayed, while gold coins and clusters of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes with dozens of individual photographs were scattered on the seabed.
Bob Evans has been researching the SS Central America since 1983 and was the chief scientist and historian of the original ground operation. He spoke of the excitement of getting the photographs back: “It’s over the top. They really bring out the humanity of the event. We don’t know who these people are in the photos. These were the last things these men had with them on deck before the ship sank – and when. Those were the things that were most important to them, their money and those images. They represented friends or relatives or maybe even themselves.
He added: “When you look at people’s real faces, it takes you right there. You’re looking at people who’ve been through it – and they’re just like us, even though the clothes and fashions have changed.
He pointed to a photograph of a young woman whose beauty captivated the men who retrieved her: “She is the Mona Lisa of the depths. This beautiful 18 year old, or whatever age, bare shoulders with jewelry and lace. It gets it through in a way that a coin doesn’t. Coins also have messages. But they are harder to interpret, more intellectual and perhaps less visceral.
The photographs appear in the latest issue of wreck watch, the magazine that Kingsley publishes.
He said: “This is the largest cache of ancient photographs found at sea – and never before seen. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see faces from the deep.
Part of the delay in releasing the material is due to the legal complexities surrounding the vessel. In 1988, during an expedition orchestrated by research scientist Tommy Thompson, the wreck was discovered by the Columbus-America Discovery Group, which conducted a scientific study of the marine life there, as well as the recovery of the ‘gold.
Thompson spent six years in prison, claiming he did not know where some of that loot was, to the fury of his former investors who helped raise millions for the expedition. They never saw any product and eventually sued.
As the Guardian Reported in 2020, he refused to cooperate with authorities trying to find the treasure, and the judge found him in contempt, as he claims to have a rare syndrome affecting short-term memory.
In 2014, Odyssey Marine Exploration was contracted by the original investors to return to the ship, recover the photographs, jewelry and more gold.
In their Wreckwatch study, Kingsley and Evans write that the miners had risked everything to head to the gold fields of California in search of a better life, and that the trip back to New York “should have been their crowning glory”.
It is believed that 153 people survived the tragedy. The women and children were evacuated on the lifeboats and some of the men were rescued by other ships.
A survivor would later recall: “Many of the passengers were miners, having considerable sums of gold on them, the product of years of toil. But the love of gold was forgotten in the anxiety and terror of the moment and many men unbuckled his gold-stuffed belt and threw his hard-earned treasure onto the deck, some hoping to lighten their weight, and thus more easily stay afloat. , while others threw it away in despair, thinking there was no use in the watery grave they were going to.