Treasure hunters claim they have discovered two ships from Sir Francis Drake’s fleet off the coast of Panama and believe his coffin could lie on the seabed nearby.
By Barney Henderson, and Jon Swaine in New York
His burial at sea in full armour and in a lead casket was designed to ensure that no one – but especially the Spanish – would find his body.
Now, more than 400 years after Sir Francis Drake's death in the Caribbean, the great seafarer's watery grave may be close to being discovered.
A team of treasure hunters led by an American former basketball team owner claims to have discovered two ships from Drake's fleet lying on the seabed off the coast of Panama. The 195-ton Elizabeth and 50-ton Delight were scuttled shortly after the naval hero's death from dysentery, aged about 55, in 1596. It is thought that Drake's final resting place may be nearby.
Pat Croce, a former president of the Philadelphia 76ers and self-professed "pirate aficionado", embarked on a search for the ships after researching a book on the latter part of Drake's career, as a privateer plundering Spanish ships in the New World.
Mr Croce, 56, described the discovery as "pretty wild", saying that after several days of searching in murky waters, the team suddenly got lucky.
“It’s been truly miraculous,” Mr Croce told The Daily Telegraph. “You set yourself impossible goals in life but to find these two ships has been amazing.
“We are 98 per cent sure of their veracity. The charred wood, the lead on board, the English pottery from that period. And we’re confident no crew in its right mind would have deliberately sailed there.
Mr Croce said that based on multiple records from the time, including the journal of Thomas Maynard, a member of Drake’s entourage who sailed on the Defiance, the coffin was believed to be one league – or just over three miles – away from the wrecks.
Mr Croce described Drake as his “favourite pirate of all time”. “Here’s a fellow in the 16th century who sailed around the world and single-handedly wreaked havoc in the New World when navigation was still primitive,” he said. “Even Queen Elizabeth described him as her pirate. The British members of our crew have been very excited.”
Drake fell ill a few weeks after failing to conquer the port of Las Palmas. He died while anchored off the coast of Portobelo and his two badly damaged ships were scuttled to avoid them, or their contents, falling into Spanish hands. Mr Croce's team, which includes experts and explorers from Britain, France, Australia, Panama and Colombia, used what diving experts have described as the most sophisticated equipment in the world to scan the ocean floor.
After locating the two ships, they now hope to find Drake's body, which has long been the target of treasure hunters and historians.
"It's truly a needle in a haystack, but so were the ships. We found them within a week. We just haven't found him, yet," said Mr Croce, the founder of the St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. The Elizabeth and Delight were emptied and torched after Drake died, so no treasure has been recovered, Mr Croce said.
The ships will remain in the water because they are the property of Panama, he added.
Marine archaeologists were amazed at the find. "We've really, I feel, hit a home run here with what we found with Pat," said James Sinclair, a marine archaeologist. "Finding the Elizabeth and Delight near where Sir Francis Drake is buried is as exciting to me as helping discover the [Spanish treasure ship] Atocha and
diving the RMS Titanic." He added: "Finding ship structures from that time period in this temperature water with the type of organisms that exist is a treasure in itself.
"We have an area that future students of underwater archaeology will be able to use for years to come."
Drake, one of the key figures of the Elizabethan court, is revered for his defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. One of Britain's greatest adventurers, he became only the second seafarer in history to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580.