The Flor de la Mar or “Flower of the Sea” was an 118-foot long, 400-ton sailing ship built in 1502 in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. Also spelled “Frol De La Mar” and “Flor Do Mar”, it was the Portuguese fleet’s flagship vessel in the Indian Ocean. In November 1511, the ship sank off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, taking with it a treasure trove of plundered loot.
So what happened to this famous treasure ship? How did the Flor de la Mar sink? With all that treasure on board, how much is the Flor de la Mar worth? And has the Flor de la Mar been found? Read on to find out.
The Malacca Treasure Ship
The Flower Of The Sea participated in a number of colonial campaigns over the course of her nine years of service in the Portuguese fleet. In 1510, she came under the command of legendary general, statesman and admiral Afonso de Albuquerque. In that year, the ship supported the conquests of Goa followed by Malacca, the latter then being the largest commercial centre in the East Indies. However, this would be her final voyage. The vast ship, laden with spoils of war from the royal palace of the Sultan of Malacca, never made it back to Portugal. So, what happened? How did the Flor de la Mar sink?
How did the Flor de la Mar sink?
Over the course of her life, Flor de la Mar had undergone a number of major repairs and was, by contemporary accounts, barely seaworthy. So much so that, prior to her final journey, the crew are said to have been reluctant to set sail, especially with the heavy payload from Malacca. Nevertheless, they did so in November 1511, bound for Portugal.
The route back took the ship from Malacca on the southwestern coast of Malaysia, up the Malacca Strait and around the northeastern coast of Sumatra. It was there that she got caught in a storm.
It’s believed an attempt was made to seek refuge on the coast but the ship was breached. The storm was so severe that the Flower Of The Sea crashed into shoals, split in two and sank on the night of 20 November 1511. Around 400 men lost their lives but Afonso de Albuquerque and a few others made it out alive. The treasure, however, has never been found.
How much is the Flor de la Mar worth?
Among the most frequently asked questions about the shipwreck today is ‘how much is the Flor de la Mar worth?’ Of course it’s impossible to say given that the estimates of what was on board the Malacca treasure ship were likely exaggerated, but one guess put the total at somewhere close to £2.5 billion in today’s money.
Among the items claimed to have been aboard were 80 tons of gold, 200 chests filled to the brim with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, coins and jewels, four full-sized sitting lions made of solid gold and filled with the finest perfumes and a jewel-encrusted table from which the Queen of Malacca took her meals.
In addition, the haul was said to have contained the famed golden bracelet of the Rajah of Sabandar and rare, hand-drawn maps by Jawanese artists showing sea routes to China and other faraway lands.
Has the Flor de la Mar been found?
For the Flower Of The Sea, lost ship and lost treasure go hand in hand but it seems very strange that such a huge vessel laden with tons of treasure should simply disappear, especially in shallow coastal waters. Nevertheless, it has never been found. So what happened to the loot?
As with all shipwrecks involving mysterious riches, there are numerous theories as to what may have happened to the Malacca treasure ship. One purported eyewitness claimed that the ship was only partially submerged and that ‘everything that water could not spoil was recovered by locals’. Another suggested that de Albuquerque deliberately ran the ship aground and escaped with the loot instead of handing it over to the king.
Perhaps the most likely scenario was that the treasure was taken by the sea, either carried away on strong currents or buried in the sediment.
In 1992, treasure hunter Bob Marx believed he had found the wreck site of the Flor de la Mar after just three days of searching, but his project was shut down.
Eighteen years later, explorer, author and photographer Rick Langrehr found a silver Tanka coin – one of Asia’s major historical currencies – around Diamond Point in northern Sumatra. While there was some initial excitement, the find was deemed inconclusive.
The search for the lost ship the Flower Of The Sea continues…