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Messages in 6,000 Bottles

Sean Kingsley describes how hi-tech marine archaeology off the Atlantic coast of Georgia in the US has thrown a new light on the world of snake-oil salesmen.

She had sailed from New York as the South licked its wounds at the end of the Civil War. With the bloodletting over, the country’s shelves were bare and, as plantations came to life once more, shipping was booming. Carpetbaggers and old money in top hats returned to exploit fresh opportunities. The Republic’s first-class cabins were sold out to entrepreneurs and speculators bound for New Orleans, while the hull was crammed with 500 barrels of cargo and a reported $400,000 in gold and silver – a private consignment heading to a city short on cash.

But on October 24th the ship sailed into a storm off the southern coast of North Carolina. Mountainous waves smashed onto the decks, choking the steam pumps and stalling the 28ft paddlewheels. At the mercy of the waves and with the hull leaking, the ship turned into a living nightmare. As one horrified passenger, Colonel Nichols, would recall, ‘I supposed I had seen something like confusion in battle, but the scene at this time was sublime. The ship had 300 tons of coal, and as she lurched from side to side, the roar of the coal and water sounded like Niagara. The wind was howling through the rigging like the demons of the sea … a perfect hell’. Most of the crew and passengers  escaped on lifeboats and a hastily built raft, but the Republic slipped into its watery grave 100 miles off the Georgia coast.

This was the ship that experts said could never be found. She lay too deep in the abyss within a local ‘Bermuda Triangle’ ravaged by currents. But after surveying 1,500 square miles of empty seabed with side-scan sonar, Odyssey Marine Exploration finally pinpointed the vessel at a depth of 510 metres in 2003, still upright on the seabed. Because of the ship’s immense depth, she has had to be excavated by robots.

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