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UN Experts Discredit Underwater Explorer’s Pirate ‘Treasure’ Discovery

The explorer claimed he found the wreck of Captain Kidd's "Adventure Galley" off the coast of Madagascar, complete with a silver bar that turned out be lead.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Jul 15 2015, 10:30pm

Image of Sainte-Marie bay via M worm/Wikimedia Commons

The UN's cultural agency, UNESCO, has dismissed claims by American underwater explorer Barry Clifford that he had discovered a legendary a 17th century pirate shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar.

Nicknamed "the underwater Sherlock Holmes," Clifford said he had discovered the remains of Captain Kidd's Adventure Galley while filming a television series for the History channel.

But a team of UN experts investigating Clifford's claim have described the wreck as nothing more than "a broken part" from past construction work on the nearby Sainte‐Marie port. According to the same UN report, a "silver treasure" recovered from the site turned out to be a bar of lead that contained no trace of silver.

"We investigated for nine days, both above ground and underwater," said Roni Amelan, an English editor for UNESCO's external relations and public information department. Speaking to VICE News Wednesday, Amelan said that UNESCO experts had analyzed samples from the ingot and sent divers to four different sites. The ingot, he said, was "constituted of 95 percent lead."

UNESCO divers concluded that, "no naval architecture element" was present on the alleged wreck site, and that, "the mass of stones" observed on this site most likely were part of "an intentionally sunk wreck filled with ballast that was used to stabilize the jetty, or, rather, the remains of ancient harbor facilities."

The other objects recovered by Clifford, said UNESCO, date back to various epochs — some of them later than Kidd's swashbuckling years.

This will come as bad news to Madagascar's president Hery Rajaonarimampianina, who said in May that he hoped the discovery would kickstart tourism to the Indian Ocean island nation — one of the poorest in the world.

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Clifford had presented the 79 pound "silver" ingot to Hery in May at a special ceremony also attended by the US and UK ambassadors.

Born in Scotland in 1645, Captain Kidd was a successful merchant before being employed by the British authorities to hunt French pirates. In a twist of irony, he became a pirate himself and is believed to have attacked several merchant ships to plunder jewels, pure gold and precious fabrics. Kidd was eventually arrested in New York and executed in London on May 23, 1701.

Undersea explorers like Clifford have long searched for Kidd's legendary sunken treasure, which inspired Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island.

But UNESCO has criticized Clifford's methods, which they say do not respect the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The diver and his film crew, they claimed, had "considerably endangered the scientific understanding of the sites concerned and the preservation of the artefacts recovered" during their explorations of the bay — an area that is home to several historic wrecks.

Underwater explorer Barry Clifford (Image via Freebooter17/Wikimedia Commons)

Barry Clifford is a salvage expert who specializes in pirate wrecks. In 1984, he discovered the remains of the wrecked Whydah Gally a former cargo and slave ship later captured by the pirate Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy. The Whydah sank off of Cape Cod in 1717, taking with it a treasure of silver and gold. The Whydah was the first ever verified pirate shipwreck, and several of Clifford's discoveries have been documented on film.

It is not the first time that UNESCO discredits one of Clifford's discoveries. In October 2014, investigators and experts concluded that a shipwreck found by Clifford near Haiti was not the Santa Maria, one of Christopher Columbus' three ships on his first voyage to America, as Clifford had claimed. 

Interviewed in French daily Le Monde, Clifford criticized UNESCO's investigation, which he said was poorly carried out and aimed "to destroy [his] reputation and business, and to hinder private sector archeology."

Related: EU Court Rules Somali Pirates Have the Same Rights as Everybody Else

During its investigation, UNESCO found that several historic wrecks were in Sainte Marie Island's bays.

"They are reasonably preserved and their extensive research would be of considerable archaeological interest," UNESCO said. 

According to the World Bank, the average income in Madagascar is $36/month, and widespread poverty on the island means that shipwrecks are often pillaged by local divers who sell the stolen artefacts on the black market.

October Films, the British production company that was filming Clifford's Madagascar expedition for television told VICE News that the episode would "probably be broadcast," but that no date had been set as of yet.

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter : @pierrelouis_c

Image of Sainte-Marie bay via M worm/Wikimedia Commons

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