A shipwreck hunter launched a new expedition to search for a sunken Spanish galleon and a lost engraved stone in Queensland that, if found, could rewrite Australia’s history.
Veteran documentary filmmaker Ben Cropp is determined to find evidence that Spanish explorers landed in eastern Australia some 130 years before Captain James Cook’s famous voyage across the east coast in 1770.
He is looking for a 17th-century Spanish gold mining settlement, which he believes exists in southern Bamaga, in the far north of Queensland, according to the markings on an old map.
Ben Cropp rummages through history books, old maps and the north coast for evidence
A postal stone similar to the one Mr. Cropp is looking for. It was a tradition for sailors to engrave the ship’s name, captain and date on a stone when picking up ballast stones. This is from Cape Town, South Africa, 1524 left by the Portuguese Captain Cristovao de Mendonça
A Spanish galleon like the one above (center) is believed to have sunk off the coast of Cape York, perhaps near Cooktown. Pictured is the masterpiece ‘Dutch ships hitting Spanish galleys off the Flemish coast in October 1602’, painted in 1617 by Dutch artist Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom
The mission could be the last adventure for the 84-year-old diver, who has discovered more than 100 shipwrecks in his career.
Cropp gathered hidden clues, historical research, legends and ancient maps and concluded that King Philip IV of Spain probably sent three expeditions to find gold, resulting in the supposed settlement in Bamaga in the 1640s.
The roots of the theory date back to 1588 when King Philip II of Spain launched the disastrous attack on Britain – under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – which resulted in the destruction of the Spanish Armada, the largest naval fleet of its day.
As a result, Spain sought gold to pay for fleet reconstruction and spent decades sending ships to search for treasures around the world.
Cropp believes that one of those ships sailed through the Torres Strait to the east coast of Cape York and then sailed up Jacky Jacky Creek to a location near Bamaga.
When collecting ballast on the coast, the ship’s crew probably engraved the ship’s name and year on a stone – as was tradition in the 17th century, Cropp said.
Bamaga, Queensland. Ben Cropp is looking for evidence that the Spaniards settled in eastern Australia, some 130 years before Captain Cook’s arrival. He thinks it likely that they embarked on Bamaga via Jacky Jacky Creek, from the east coast of the Cape York Peninsula
One of the rangers Yuku Baja Muliku helping Ben Cropp to search for the lost postal stone in a secret location south of Cooktown in February
The 1651 French map of the world known to the French cartographer Nicolas Sanson, also known as Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville
A detail from Ben Cropp’s 1651 map, which shows a circle of settlements more or less where Bamaga is today – a discovery that surprised Mr. Cropp and sparked his renewed determination to find the missing evidence from Spanish explorers
He believes that the Spaniards may have found evidence of alluvial gold in the gold-bearing region and remained there to mine it, with the remains of the settlement buried and long forgotten somewhere in the area.
Spanish explorers reportedly loaded their bags of gold dust on the ship and left for Spain – never to arrive.
Cropp believes the Spanish discovery ship sank on a reef somewhere on the east coast of Queensland.
“He never came home; otherwise, we may be speaking Spanish,” he said.
Cropp said his historical research indicated that shipwrecked sailors launched a large cannon into the sea along with ballast to lighten the load and allow the ship to float off the reef.
He is determined to find the evidence to prove it.
Cropp had long heard of Spanish relics found near Cape York, including a helmet and a coin discovered in a cave in the remote False Orford Ness and armor inside Cardwell.
Part of the 1703 map found in the collection of the German cartographer and Jesuit priest Heinrich Scherer, which clearly shows the far north of Australia, called ‘New Hollandia’
When the full 1703 map is superimposed on Google Earth, the coastline fits almost exactly with a displacement error in latitude that was difficult to calculate at the time
Bamaga, Queensland, on the edge of the Torres Strait. The strait was named after Spanish explorer Luis Vaez de Torres, who sailed around 1606. There is no evidence that he landed in mainland Australia, but Cropp says that other Spaniards arrived on land in the 1640s
The handle of a Spanish sword was discovered on a beach in Port Stewart, north of Princes Charlotte Bay, Cropp said.
But the clincher came when his friend Rod Miller found a large cannon on a reef south of Cooktown.
“Big means very old, so I was excited,” he said.
Unfortunately, Mr. Miller did not receive the GPS coordinates for his discovery at the time, and Mr. Cropp has been looking for the cannon for the past eight years.
If the cannon can be found, it will be important historical evidence, and Mr. Cropp is determined to find it.
“I’ve already spent $ 40,000,” he said.
The next tempting evidence came in the form of a postal stone.
In the 17th century, it was common for sailors to collect ballast for their ships on the coast to leave a marker – a message engraved on a rock to let future people know they were there.
They would carve a stone with the name of the ship, the captain and the date.
Cropp found these Spanish coins on a mission prior to the wreckage of The Sun in 1985, which is east of Cape York, on Ashmore Reef, off Queensland.
Documentary filmmaker and shipwreck hunter Ben Cropp on board his exploration vessel prepares to dive with an underwater camera
At the same time that Miller recounted his cannon discovery, two separate sources said they found a rock engraved in southern Cooktown, Spain.
The people who found the rock said they left it where they found it.
“That was the absolute proof that I needed,” said Cropp.
– Well, in the last eight years, I climbed all over the place and turned a thousand stones with the help of fellow hunters and shipwreck historians, Jim Parker and Hubert Hofer, of Cooktown, without success.
It is said that another stone engraved with writing in Spanish, together with two Spanish cannons, was found further north, and again Mr. Cropp searched for the relics with no luck so far.
Cropp said he climbed steep hills even at the age of 84 to turn the rocks, as he is determined to find them.
“It is possible that the rock was found by a camper who noticed the writing and took it home as a souvenir, now hidden and forgotten in his garage or garden, ” he said.
“I pray for a phone call: ‘Hi Ben, I have a stone with some writing on it’ ‘It would make my day,” he said.
The roads of the Cape York Peninsula are practically unsealed and much of the territory is remote
The Bamaga airstrip today. It was built in World War II by US soldiers and originally called the Higgins Airfield. The wreckage of WWII aircraft can still be found in Bamaga today. Cropp thinks that the remains of the Spanish settlement could be buried under the airstrip
If he can find the rock or cannon, he believes it will be absolute proof that Spanish explorers discovered Australia’s east coast long before Captain Cook.
The clue as to why Cropp thinks the Spaniards set up camp in Bamaga is revealed on old maps found by Steve Hutcheon.
Cropp asked the researcher to help him with the mystery – and he soon found a German map of Australia in 1703, showing Dutch discoveries along the east coast of the Cape York Peninsula, more than 67 years before Captain Cook’s trip to HMS Endeavor.
EXPLORATION SCHEDULE FOR AUSTRALIA
1401: Chinese sailors visit near Darwin
1451: Dutch documents record the trips of indigenous traders from Indonesia to Australia, or how they knew ‘Marege’
1500: Indonesian fishermen visit northern Australia in search of trepang or sea cucumber, which would last for two centuries
1521: Some historians say that the Portuguese visited Australia during this period.
February / March 1606: The Dutch East India Company explored the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula. This is the first mainland recorded by a European on Australian soil.
1616-1696: Several English and Dutch explorers visited different parts of Australia.
1770: The famous English captain James Cook traced the east coast of the continent in 1770, which later opened the door to British colonization.
When the pair superimposed the 1703 map on a modern Google Earth map, the two corresponded almost perfectly – with only a slight displacement error in latitude.
Cropp said that just because the map was German does not mean that the Germans made the discovery.
“It is more likely that the initial cartographer sold it to the cartographer, which was common in those days,” he said.
Cropp said the map is part of a collection created by the Jesuit priest and cartographer Heinrich Scherer, published in Munich, Germany, between 1702 and 1710.
“This map was recorded in 1703, so the original east coast map would have been drawn in 1600,” said Cropp.
Hutcheon found an even more important map – a French map dated 1651 that showed a large settlement on the Cape York Peninsula near Bamaga today.
“This map surprised me,” said Cropp.
Cropp said access to the settlement would be via Jacky Jacky Creek, which runs from Bamaga, off the east coast of the Cape York Peninsula.
“I had already discovered that a Spanish expedition went up Jacky Jacky Creek in the 1640s and found gold,” said Cropp.
“In fact, there were three Spanish expeditions to Cape York in the 1640s … it is an early part of our history that few know about.”
Cropp acquired an old article from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1872, which said that a small Spanish ship had discovered alluvial gold at the upper end of Cape York in the 1640s.
The article said that the small ship ran back to King Philip IV of Spain to report his discovery and he sent a Spanish galleon with 200 to 300 miners to take possession of the country of gold.
Ben Cropp, in a secret location south of Cooktown, looking for a postal stone in February. He started a GoFundMe page to finance the new expedition that could rewrite Australian history
The ship never returned, the article said.
Cropp said they probably found alluvial gold near Bamaga, established their settlement – and that may be what is marked on the 1651 map.
“That would mean that after the ship was destroyed, someone survived and came home and told a cartographer – who showed the settlement on his 1651 map,” he said.
“It also means that there is a Spanish galleon wrecked somewhere out there loaded with gold”
Thinking that the ship was lost, King Philip IV sent a third ship to find the gold, but was unable to find the agreement.
Cropp said that whoever finds the wreckage cannot find gold.
The sailors reportedly packed their alluvial gold dust in bags and packed it on the ship to take it back to Spain for smelting.
Corrosion over the years and the action of the tides and currents would have long broken the bags and spread the gold dust, Cropp said.
The enormous value in finding the debris or evidence of the settlement would not be monetary, but historical.
“The 1651 map tells us that there was a big settlement there in the 1600s,” said Cropp.
Ben Cropp (photo) has been working as a shipwreck hunter for almost 50 years and saved his biggest mission for the last time
Shipwreck hunter Ben Cropp (photo) analyzes an old shipwreck anchor off the Sudbury Reef in the Great Barrier Reef in January
“The circle that indicates a settlement the same size as that of Rome on the same map.”
Cropp said he thought it was impossible to find the remains of the settlement, as it was roughly marked where the former Higgins Field airstrip was built by US soldiers in World War II.
“Try a gold magnetometer finder to look for old fallen coins and you would give up after digging up a thousand bottles of coke,” he said.
World War II remains of old rusty drums and crashed aircraft, such as a Bristol Beaufort and a Douglas C-47 Dakota, can still be seen in the undergrowth around Bamaga.
The airstrip is now Bamaga Airport, so Cropp thinks the best chance of finding evidence is to look for the Spanish galleon stone board, cannon and wreckage.
Mr. Cropp started his first GoFundMe page on Tuesday to finance the new expedition in search of answers.
“Let’s keep looking,” he said.
“The proof is out there.”