It is a discovery big enough even to quicken the pulse of Captain Sparrow and his Pirates of the Caribbean. But there is nothing fictional about the cannons and anchors found off the shores of an island belonging to the Dominican Republic. The real-life scoundrel linked to its loss was Captain William Kidd.
Archaeologists from the University of Indiana say they have found the wreck of the Quedagh Merchant, an Armenian ship loaded with treasures – satins, muslins, silver and gold – that probably belonged to the British East India Company before being commandeered by Kidd in 1699. Treasure hunters have been vying for years to be the first to find the 500-tonne vessel apparently boarded by Kidd in the Indian Ocean. Remarkably, it has turned up in 10ft of crystal clear waters just a short paddle from the shore of Catalina Island. Yet, by all indications, no one before has investigated the site. Certainly, they have not plundered it.
"When I first looked down and saw it, I couldn't believe everybody missed it for 300 years," said Charles Beeker, a diver-archaeologist on the Indiana team. "I've been on thousands of wrecks and this is one of the first where it's been untouched by looters."
The Dominican government invited the US team to research the wreckage after it was reported by a Catalina islander. The area will be turned into a protected underwater reserve and, in time, it will be opened for amateurs to explore.
Historians hope the discovery will help fill gaps in the story of William Kidd, a Scot who was cast as a privateer to apprehend pirates but who was eventually convicted as one himself and hanged in London in 1701. His body was dipped in tar and left dangling above the Thames for two years to deter others from emulating his expolits.
For decades historians have tangled over the real story of Kidd, who travelled to New York before becoming a buccaneer, and whether his conviction and execution were in fact just.
According to the historian Richard Zacks, who wrote the 2002 book The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd, he chose to abandon the Quedagh Merchant in the Caribbean after deciding to head back to New York to try to clear his name. The men to whom he had entrusted the vessel apparently then looted it, set it on fire and allowed to drift out to sea.
John Foster, a state archaeologist in California who will investigate the Catalina site, said: "Because there is extensive written documentation, this is an opportunity we rarely have to test historic information against the archaeological record."
Pirate hunter hanged for piracy
* William Kidd was born in Scotland in about 1645 and travelled to New York as a child. A founder of Trinity Church, which still stands near Ground Zero, he was selected by the British authorities to hunt down pirates and left London aboard the Adventure Galley in 1696. It was after he seized the Quedagh Merchant that his reputation as privateer turned to one of ruthless pirate. On his return to New York, Kidd was imprisoned and sent to London, where he was questioned by Parliament before being convicted for piracy and murder. He was hanged in Wapping in 1701.