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Already, some inspired detective work among the rare manuscripts and royal archives in Lisbon has cobbled together enough bits and pieces to tell the tale of a long-forgotten voyage and a vanished ship that turned out to be as rich in irony and allegory as it was in gold.

The story begins on a fresh spring day in Lisbon—Friday, the seventh of March, 1533, to be exact—when the great naus of that year's India fleet sailed grandly down the Tagus River and out into the broad Atlantic, flags and pennants flying and colorful silks and velvets draped from their towering castles. These were the pride of Portugal, the space shuttles of their day, off on a 15-month odyssey to bring back a fortune in pepper and spices from distant continents. Goa, Cochin, Sofala, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Ternate: Storied places that once had been as remote as the stars were now familiar ports of call, part of the Portuguese vernacular, thanks to Portuguese ingenuity and cutting-edge technology.

The outbound ships that sailed down the Tagus River in 1533 were sturdy and capable; two of them were brand-new and owned by the king himself. One of these was the Bom Jesus—the Good Jesus—captained by one Dom Francisco de Noronha and carrying 300 or so sailors, soldiers, merchants, priests, nobles, and slaves.

PINNING A NAME and a story to an anonymous, five-centuries-old shipwreck found unexpectedly on a far-flung shore takes canny sleuthing and more than a little luck—particularly if it is thought likely to have been an early Portuguese wreck. Although the Spanish Empire left mountains of paperwork in its wake, a catastrophic earthquake, tsunami, and fire in November 1755 virtually wiped Lisbon off the map and sent the Casa da India, the building that housed the vast majority of precious maps, charts, and shipping records, tumbling into the Tagus River.

"That left a huge hole in our history," says Alexandre Monteiro, a maritime archaeologist and researcher who works with the Portuguese Ministry of Culture. "With no India archives left to peruse, one has to revert to other, more imaginative ways of finding information."

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