Hello and hi. Not my usual post. I hope you like it. Yes. Yes, I do. Ok, let’s do this. Right, then…
Approximately 50 years ago, Belgian Robert Sténuit discovered pieces of eight (a Spanish dollar, equivalent to 8 reals) in the freezing, dark, seabed- off the coast of Northern Ireland. Oh you are not familiar with this story? Allow me. You are welcome, of course.
In 1588, the Girona-one of the most important ships in the Spanish Armada, sank beneath the freezing iciness of the Atlantic waves, after striking rocks at Lacada Point near Portballintrae, County Antrim. Later, this place was to become the resting place of the Girona along with its haul of gold and various artefacts. In brief, there was a massive cache of Spanish treasure on board. In addition, all but nine of the 1,300 on board met their fate, in an unmarked, watery grave. How terribly tragic.
Fast forward and it is the anniversary of Sténuit’s discovery of the Girona gold, and the anniversary has now been commemorated in a series of events of Northern Ireland’s north coast.
Events included a wreath-laying ceremony, which took place from a Navy vessel, near Lacada Point (the rocky place that is believed to have been struck by the Girona.
In addition, a service was held at St Cuthbert Church near Dunluce Castle, where an estimated 260 Girona sailors were buried. The aforementioned events were organised by the Causeway Coast and Glens Council-which commemorated the lives lost as well as the cultural/historical impact of the Armada and its subsequent legacy.
In addition, the anniversary reflects both the gold and artefacts recovered by Stenuit-but also the anecdotes which denote those poor sailors who were sadly swallowed by the sea, while on board the Girona. The Girona set sail in May 1588 and it was a galleass ship (it was part gallery, part galleon) and was meant to be one of Spain’s principle weapons in the war against England. But by the time the Girona sank by 1588-the ship carried more men than it was intended to and also, it had picked up surviving crew from other shipwrecks. The nine survivors of the shipwreck were later helped by local chief Sorley Boy McDonnell.
McDonnell was extremely wary of attracting unwanted attention from Crown forces, who no doubt would take interest in the Girona and its treasure. So McDonnell did the only thing a person could do in this situation. Lie. McDonnel told the Crown forces that the ship had sunk at another point on the coast-and not the real location. From that moment on, the Girona and its secrets lay in the silent deep and under water for 400 years. 400 years later a certain and determined Belgian by the name of Robert Sténuit, commenced a covert mission to uncover the lost Armada ship.
Image: BBC News
Robert Sténuit, brief bio
Sténuit was considered, a vanguard-the guy was a trailblazer. He sure was. In addition, Sténuit was also a historian and he had a hunch-some might call it a historical hunch or rather a gut feeling, as to where the Girona had sunk. You see, whike looking at 19th century maps, he noticed 2 markings, which were: Spaniard rock and Port na Spaniagh. He followed through on these points and his hunches turned into reality.
Sténuit told a 2008 documentary, “the geographers came and asked people how is this place named and why. There was a very vivid memory of what had happened.” Later, in 1967, Sténuit commenced his search/dive and was accompanied by his associates, Mark Jasinski, and his wife, Annette. Within a week diving around Port na Spaniage, they had located a bronze Armada cannon, an anchor and a gold escudo. At that moment, they knew they had found the right place. Jackpot. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. But the crew maintained a pretty strict silence on their discovery-as they had no legal powers over the wreckage site, they knew, that they could potentially lose out. So, they kept quiet about their discovery-and later stashed their finds in an underwater cave and later, went to London Town to get financial backing for a more comprehensive search/dive of the seabed.
Sténhuit and his crew, returned in April 1968-and registered an interest with the receiver of wrecks-Sténuit was pretty confident that he had legal power of the site, at this point, but still, kept quiet. Later, as told to a documentary on this subject, he said, “We told people we were filming the underwater eco-system around the Giants Causeway,”
But the crew’s decision to salvage a full cannon, actually let the Armada secret out of the bag. Sténuit remarked, “Everyone could see what we were doing. There was pandemonium, there was big posters in the street…The evening newspapers printed ‘GOLD’ like this across the front page, and everyone was there during the weekend. We were overwhelmed by tourists.” Soon after, Sténhuit’s crew were joined a couple of divers from the Belfast Sub-Aqua Club. The Belgian told the documentary: “I asked them if they were going to the site of the Girona, and none of them answered anything…I went to the skipper of an open boat who was there to take them somewhere and asked the same questions and he said ‘no, we’re going the other way, we’re going west’…then the boat went out of the harbour and went straight east to the Girona.”
Sténhuit described in the documentary, they were “not coming in an inquisitive mind but an acquisitive mind” though Alan Wilson, from the club, said they simply thought they were “diving on a wreck”. “We thought there was a big boat there,” he told the documentary, with a laugh.
In the finish, as expected, headlines were made-but for vastly different reasons after Sténhuit confronted a diver underwater in order to prevent him lifting a piece of lead from the wreck. He remarked at the time, “It made me angry, yes,” he said. “We were trying to reconstruct a puzzle and if you are missing a piece of the puzzle you cannot reconstruct it.”
By 1969, Sténhuit and his crew felt that they had pretty much exhausted their dive efforts – but this was just the beginning of the story of who owned the Girona gold.
What Spain said…
Spain later claimed that the cache from the wreck belonged to them-of course they did. But others argued that the find should remain in Northern Ireland. In the finish, a court decided that no single owner could be found-this meant that the artefacts would subsequently be sold. They were later valued at £132K and Sténhuit agreed to a deal, for it to stay in Northern Ireland and in the Ulster Museum, where the Girona gold remains an integral part of the museum’s exhibitions.
Image: Mark Jesinski
NB Sténhuit and his associate, Jesinski later returned to Portballintrae to film the 2008 documentary, and said that while the endeavour was financially worthwhile, it was also the most fulfilling of their lives. Indeed it was. The Belgian said, “I don’t like the word profit, in that context…because it’s not what we had in mind. Our time was compensated, and handsomely, in two ways. Because we had some of the best years of our lives and a little money to put butter in the spinach, as we say in France.”
*Sources used: BBC News