Sea Stories

Death and mystery of the Black Prince’s treasures

On November 14, 1854, during a severe storm off the coast of Balaklava, the 2,700-tonne vessel, HMS Prince did not have time to take shelter. Helpless against the raging storms that frequent the Black Sea, the recently-built vessel was swept on to the rocks and soon afterwards sank beneath the waves.

Of the 150 people on board the distressed vessel, only six survived. Journalists at the time dubbed the ship ‘Black Prince’. This may have been on account of her hull’s dark colour or its tragic end.

The legendary British frigate Prince was transporting a cargo of warm clothing and salaries for thousands of British troops caught up in in the Crimean War. Treasure hunters have been trying for 150 years to find the ship’s legendary gold bullion, which was allegedly transported by a frigate. Yet, their searching appears to be futile. Only a few gold buttons and coins were ever found.

In March 2010, when the Crimea peninsula was part of Ukraine archaeologists are reported to have found the wreck of the HMS Prince, reporting that a British Royal Navy steamer had been sunk in the great storm of November 1854, during the Crimean War.

These reports from our correspondents in the Crimea and Constantinople give a graphic account of the loss, which caused a huge scandal at the time.

The storm, which lasted for three days, reached hurricane force during which many British and French ships were sunk or driven ashore. The majority of the allied Balaclava fleet was anchored in deep water outside the harbour and completely defenceless against the phenomenal force of the wind and waves.

The Prince was a brand new iron-built steamer. The vessel had arrived in the Crimea only a few days earlier, carrying the 46th Regiment, and a cargo valued at £500,000. At today’s value, this is £15 million, a considerable sum. The troops had been disembarked but, disastrously, there was still a crew of 150 officers and rating on board when the vessel met its watery fate.

William Howard Russell, ca. 1854

The loss of the Prince’s general cargo was to prove catastrophic as it consisted largely of winter clothing for the Crimean Armies. In one of his most colourful, angry and dramatic reports, The Times’ Crimean correspondent, William Howard Russell (above), described the loss:

‘40,000 suits of clothes, with under garments, socks, gloves and a multitude of other articles of the kind, vast quantities of shot and shell, and not least in consequence, the medical stores sent out in consequence of the deficiencies which formerly existed. The latter were, with not uncommon negligence, stowed away under the shot and shell, and could not be landed at Scutari. They are now lost, at a time when the demand for them is likely to be more urgent than ever.’

The full tally of ships lost in the storm would not be known for some days, but this was Russell’s first assessment:

The loss of the Prince added to a grim prospect for the Crimean troops. Russell describes how ‘they are sleeping in the open, with no prospect of huts being built for at least three more months. The troops will therefore have to brave the fury of the elements and the cold of the bleak Russian hills until at least the middle of January without any protection but that of their tents, already much injured by the storm of the 14th. This added to the destruction of the stock of winter clothing in the Prince, makes their position one not to be looked forward to without apprehension.’

The generals in command seem never to have anticipated or provided for a winter campaign, although it was evident that even if Sebastopol had been taken at once, the further operation would have been necessary for the destruction of the Russian power in the peninsula, and even to protect our own embarkation, should it have been determined to abandon the conquest.

HMS Prince locator map

As well as The Times’ own reports, the page carries letters from others who were caught up in the storm, including sailors’ wives. One, from an unnamed ship, begins: Thank God, my dear, I am alive and able to give you an account of the horrors I have witnessed and escaped during the last two days.

The Treasure Hunt Begins

Until the middle of the 19th century, the HMS Prince was the latest type of English vessel. The ship had the option of using either its sails or its steam-powered engine.

The purpose of the vessel was to transport cargo, medicines, winter clothing and engineering equipment essential for the fighting forces.  But this time, in addition to the usual cargo on board, there was also the significant payroll of the entire British army fighting then against Russia in the Crimea.

During those terrible days between 14/27 November 1854, a far worse storm than usual occurred in the Black Sea.  In less than one hour, 27 ships of His Majesty’s fleet perished in Balaklava Bay.

It was the most terrible disaster of the allied forces in the entire Crimean campaign. Ships that had lost their anchors began to be wrecked on rocks. The ships, thrown by ten-metre waves, crashed into cliff ledges.  The Prince cracked and sank within 10 minutes after striking the rocks. Only five or six sailors out of 150 on board the doomed vessel escaped.

The consequences of the storm affected the entire allied military campaign in the Crimea. For some time military actions against the Imperial Russian Empire practically stopped. The loss of the British fleet was unprecedented.

The Commander of the Balaklava port reported the losses to the British Fleet Commander, Admiral Lines. He did not report on the 27 ships that had sunk. Many of the stricken vessels were the pride of the English fleet, but for some reason, he reported only on HMS Prince. At all the subsequent meetings, only the loss of this vessel was discussed.

By some estimates, the gold aboard the English ship Black Prince was worth around £500,000. This amounted to a king’s ransom and attracted treasure hunters by the score.  There were known to be engaged in the pursuit of the treasure fifteen major foreign expeditions are known around the world, but they were inconclusive.

Treasure hunters from the United States of America, Norway, France, Germany and Spain searched in vain for the treasures of the ‘Black Prince’. Ironically, none of the interested parties was British. Does this oddity reveal a clue as to the futility of the on-going but doomed searches?

Otherwise, this is surprising as it is a British ship. But still, the British can keep secrets and little by little, interest and even awareness of the tragedy evaporated.

After the passage of 70 years, the gold from the holds of the frigate ‘Black Prince’ was never discovered.  In 1923, there was widespread famine in Soviet Russia.

Russia and Ukraine, Europe’s largest countries are by nature blessed. Before the onslaught of Bolshevism, Ukraine was known as ‘the breadbasket of Europe’. This was because the nation was self-sufficient. Such was the abundance of farm foods; Ukraine was responsible for feeding much of Europe.

Before the great famines, entirely due to the mismanagement and the Soviets shipping much-needed grain abroad for desperately needed money, tens of millions of Russians and Ukrainians needlessly died of hunger and hunger-related diseases.  Children were dying in their homes and streets and entire villages were disappearing from the maps. There were insincere attempts by the Bolsheviks to alleviate the suffering. But, how does one remove a people’s harvest whilst keeping them alive?  Only the Bolsheviks could attempt that solution.

Felix Dzerzhinsky was said to be looking for any way out of this situation. One day he had a ship engineer from Sevastopol in his reception room. His guest told the founder of the dreadful NKVD that he knew where the legendary English frigate Prince had sunk.

In addition, the leading Bolshevik’s comrade told the leading Bolshevik that he had invented and designed a special deep-sea vehicle with which he could find and lift the treasure. Dzerzhinsky immediately arrived at a decision and ordered a special expedition of special underwater work to be set up, which later became known as EPRON.  The EPRON group was then sent to the Crimea.

EPRON is the forerunner of the marine Special Forces. Having started its work from the Black Sea, the specialised marine force in the future would operate worldwide as a secret military organisation of the USSR.

Dzerzhinsky commissioned a special department of the OGPU under the leadership of the equally notorious Genrikh Yagoda since proved to have been responsible for the deaths of 10 million people during the harshest of several Bolshevik repressions.

Lev Nikolaevich Zakharov-Meyer, head of the internal security service of F. E. Dzerzhinsky, was appointed as technical head of the project. All actions taken by the project participants were strictly classified. Only a few people at the top of the OGPU (Secret Police) knew about the final objective of the work. 

The search for the Black Prince began on 9 September 1923. Military trawlers were involved in the Balaklava raid, as was the Bolinder barge blessed with a winch and accompanied by a tugboat. The sea’s bottom was examined by metal detectors. A hydroplane and an aerostat were used throughout the operation to take detailed underwater photographs.

Danilenko hydrostat at the bottom of Balaklava bay / engraving from the book by D. V. Voitov Underwater manned vehicles. – M.: Astrel, 2002, 303 p., illustration.

Danilenko had indeed invented a unique deep-sea vehicle. The submersible was equipped with a searchlight manipulator, a telephone and an emergency lifting system. The sub’ enabled the bottom of the entire Balaklava Bay to be searched.  Between the two World Wars, the Japanese had the most advanced technology for underwater searches, but their submersibles sank only to a depth of 80 metres.

The Danilenko submersible greatly increased the chances of Soviet divers finding sunken ships and their sometimes precious cargoes. When they first dived, the Soviet explorers reached a depth of 95 metres, and then later on achieved 123 metres. Without realising it, Soviet divers had set a world diving record.

The Bolinder barge’s crane has already lowered the lower cylindrical part of Evgeny Danilenko’s hydrostat into the water.

The study participants thought it would be easy to find the Prince, as the vessel was the only steel-built ship to have sunk in the great storm. However, the search lasted over a year. After the death of Dzerzhinsky, the study lasted another year a half yet the EPRON did not give up. Finally, it seemed that success was theirs. On one of the raised teak fragments was the inscription ‘…ck Prince’.  

In 1926 the engineers made a table out of this piece and presented it to Menzhinsky, the Chairman of the OGPU. They say that even now the artefact is in one of the closed to the public museums of the FSB. However, this story is said to be a hoax. The fact is that the inscription on board the ship could only have been Prince but not ‘Black Prince’. the name coined by a British journalist.

Engineer Evgeny Danilenko

EPRON did not limit itself to finding only gold. Treasures belonging to other British vessels were also raised from the bottom of the bay but no gold was discovered.

Photo taken in Balaklava Bay in early autumn 1923. On the back side is the inscription of the Navy archive: “Black Prince” searches. A group of Epron specialists before the launch of the EGD deep-water projectile, specially designed by engineer Danilenko E.G.
/(In the centre, among the workers – chief diving specialist F.A. Shpakovich).

The OGPU’s successors were furious. The state’s money had been spent without results. Five years of searching and there was no trace of the treasure. The organisation now began to finally understand that the expedition was in danger of complete failure.

Japanese treasure hunters

Then suddenly, in 1928, the largest Japanese diving company Shinkai Kogioesio Limited intervened. The Japanese expressed the desire to look for the Prince and its treasure. The area and the time allowed for the search were strictly stipulated. The permit was soon issued for a large sum of money to be paid as a reward and the Japanese immediately started their underwater work.

In the early 1920s, it was the Japanese who had the best equipment and technology for ship-lifting. The legendary cruiser Varyag sunk by its crew to avoid becoming a prize of war in the Russo-Japanese War was raised by the Japanese immediately after its deliberate sinking.

Before the start of work, the Japanese engineers were convinced that the Russians either did not have all the necessary equipment to find it or had missed something. The deal was profitable for the OGPU. The Japanese paid 70,000 (in other sources 110, 000roubles) for the licence. This amount covered the cost of pointless EPRON work. In addition, Soviet specialists had the opportunity to observe the diving and ship-lifting technology of the Japanese.

The Japanese company began its search in April 1928 and literally in a few months was discovered a metal-built ship, and next to it a golden English coin minted in 1821. These were the same ones on board the Prince. Re-doubling their efforts, the Japanese continued their search without missing a single square centimetre of the bay’s bottom. In the end, only seven gold coins were raised, four of which were given to the OGPU and three were spirited away.

Treasure hunters from OGPU

Immediately after the search, the head of the corporation officially stated that the ship he had found was indeed a ‘Black Prince’, but they did not provide any proof of their doing so. The coins discovered could have been on any ship that sank those unfortunate days. The Japanese left only the exact coordinates of their discovery.

After the end of the EPRON work in Balaklava, the expedition members were assigned to different projects so that they would never meet again. The entire operation was filed away and forgotten.

English ships during the conflict remained in the Crimea for about two years, during which there was a parliamentary enquiry. During this time, the gold of the Prince, around which for a century and a half unimaginable speculation and amazing events continue to unfold. 

The British, it was said, did not need to raise the Prince for it was sufficient to lift the ship’s cargo off the coast at such a shallow depth where it had foundered. So it seems the British have been silent for the second century in a row and perhaps for good reason.

The point in this story will be known perhaps only when the British archives of the 19th century are finally declassified. Only relatively recently, on 15 March 2010, Ukrainian marine archaeologists led by Sergei Voronov with the assistance of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine discovered the remains of the legendary frigate Prince.

Fragments of items from the captain’s service was finally raised from the sea bottom, where the emblem of the ship owner’s company was found. Cannonballs and remains of medical equipment were also discovered but no treasure.

The question asked is had the wily British at the time, in fact, recovered the ship’s bullion and spirited it away. How strange that only the British showed no interest in searching for the mission bullion. Had they already found it?

Imagine the riches to be gained by plundering the sunken vessel but continuing the illusion that the gold had never been recovered. The legend of the ‘Black Prince’ may have been the story of the perfect robbery. Perhaps, some English gentry are still laughing.  Source 1, Source 2

Imperial Russia in 1917 held the world’s greatest gold reserves. What happened to the amassed treasures has been a secret until revealed in Trotsky’s White Negroes and Slaughter of a Dynasty the Michael Walsh best-sellers.

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