Elusive Treasure Ship Egypt
By James Donahue
The steamship Egypt was built in 1897 as one of five 500-foot-long "India Class" passenger liners
for the P&O Steam Navigational Company of England. The steamer served on a regular route from London to Bombay, India,
except during World War I, when it served as a hospital ship.
The Egypt, under the command of Captain Collyer, left Tilbury, Essex on its final voyage on May 20,
1922, with 338 passengers and crew and a cargo of gold and silver bullion and gold sovereigns valued at over a million pounds
at the time. As the ship made its way through the English Channel it ran into heavy fog so was making slow progress.
After entering the Bay of Biscay, and still picking its way through the heavy fog, the Egypt was struck
broadside by the French cargo steamer Seine. The liner heeled over from the impact and sank within 20 minutes. Of the passengers
and crew, 252 of the 338 escaped in the ship’s lifeboats and were picked up by the Seine, which remained afloat.
The Egypt sank in 560 feet of water, far too deep for salvage equipment in that day. Yet the treasure
it took to the bottom with her made the wreck a tempting target for salvagers. And thus began one of the most amazing and
daring deep-sea salvage operations ever attempted at that time.
It was Italian salvager Giovanni Quaglia who pulled it off. First he located the wreck in 1930 by
using two ships with a suspended cable between them and dragging over the seabed. Once found, it was determined that the ship
was sitting upright on the bottom. But the treasure was located in a vault three decks down. The Egypt was lying at a depth
lower than any diver had ever gone at the time.
But Quaglia had a reputation of daring to achieve the impossible. He designed a special observation
chamber, just large enough for a man to ride in, which was dropped to the wreck. A telephone line was used by the man in the
chamber to talk to a crane operator on the salvage vessel Artiglio at the surface.
It took five years, but the salvagers, using this device, slowly cut their way though the upper decks
of the Egypt, using explosives and steel grabs, until they reached the vault. Once this was entered, the gold and silver bars
and gold coins were brought to the surface, one at a time. The salvage continued until 1935 when an estimated 95 percent of
the treasure was recovered.
But another five percent remains in the wreck. And with the rising value of gold bullion in today’s
market, it is a treasure worth going after. Thus in 1987 the Dutch salvage vessel Holga Dane and its crew, Consortium Recovery,
were anchored over the wreck scene. This team, however, was only able to recover a single gold bar before giving up.
It is estimated that 14,929 sovereigns, 17 gold bars and 30 silver ingots still wait to be found in
that wreck. It is said the gold was cast in different sizes.