April 24th, 2013
Months of research in the Dutch archives at The Hague convinced the author that an 18th century English diver, John Lethbridge, had retrieved much, though not all, of Slotter Hooke’s treasure. But the documents failed to establish the ship’s precise location.
Fellow wreck-hunters in London showed the author engravings copied from a silver tankard that had belonged to Lethbridge. One showed Porto Santo, with a foundered ship in a north-coast bay. “Slotter Hooke,” concluded Mr. Sténuit, “as surely as if an X marked the spot.”
The other engraving depicted a cylinder being lowered into the water. This was Lethbridge’s “diving machine,” a wooden tube ringed with iron hoops. Peering through a glass plate, Lethbridge could work for several minutes at a time before being hauled topside, where fresh air was pumped into the cylinder, and water drained out.
One report gave details of the wreck and listed the ship’s precious cargo: 15 chests of silver bars; others containing Spanish pieces of eight and Dutch silver coins; and a grote quantity of valuables belonging to the officers and passengers aboard the ship.
The consul of Lisbon had added a hopeful note salvage was indeed a possibility, even with the primitive diving apparatus of that day. “I know not,” he wrote, “how well acquainted the Dutch are with the machines, but the English are most certainly capable of fishing all [the treasure] up … the depth being 10 to 12 fathoms [60 to 72 feet].”
Puzzles Prompt Deeper Research
I was instantly fascinated by Slotter Hooge as a modern salvage prospect. By many years of exploring wrecks of the Spanish Armada had come to a successful conclusion. My interest now, except consolidating payday loans, turned to the historic East India trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet there were several unanswered questions about Slotter Hooge. Exactly where, for example, was the fateful spot on Porto Santo Island on which the ship had corne to grief? What was the character of the sea bottom there, and how had it changed in the course of two and a half centuries?
Even more vital was the question of 18thcentury salvage from the ship. Dutch East India Company records indicated that the Englishman John Lethbridge had been hired to retrieve Slot ter Hooge’s lost treasure. Lethbridge, a Devonshireman and a technical genius of his day, had developed a remarkable “diving machine”—a wooden barrel in which he could descend and work as deep as 60 feet (right).
Had Lethbridge been successful at Porto Santo? The records did not say. When I requested further documents on the subject, the record keepers in The Hague shook their heads. “Last or destroyed,” they replied sadly, “or perhaps lying somewhere among our millions of still uncataloged documents. No one can say if they will ever turn up.”
With that I put Slotter Hooke aside for other projects, though thoughts of her often recurred. I was intrigued not merely by the possible treasure, but also by its connection with a flourish Rex generously produced a monograph that Zelide had recently uncovered. It was an extract from the proceedings of a Devonshire learned society in the year 1880. I will always be grateful to Rex for his kindness in showing me the document, for it was to lead me directly to Slotter Hooge.