During the Crimean War (a war fought mainly on the Crimean Peninsula between the Russians and the British, French, and Ottoman Turkish), the British government hired more than two hundred newly built merchant ships belonging to private European companies to transport people and ammunition for the Crimean service. Among others, one of the frigates named “Prince” sailed to the distant southern coast of Crimea. The ships carried winter clothing, weapons, provisions, medicines and other cargo that would allow the Allies to continue military operations in winter conditions.
On November 8, the ships dropped anchors in the sea off the town of Balaklava. But five days later, a mighty storm hit the area and because of the severe weather and storm threats, on November 14, the allied fleet commander ordered all ships of the line to go back to the sea. However, it seemed that nature itself took up arms against the allied troops, who were trying to break the resistance of the defence of Sevastopol in an unequal struggle. On the coastal rocks of Balaklava, 34 ships found their demise. Near Evpatoria, the 100-gun French battleship “Henry IV”, the 90-gun Turkish “Peiki-Messeret” and 3 steam corvettes were also destroyed and sank by the storm. Before that, the countries participating in the anti-Russian coalition had never suffered such losses. The damage caused by the storm could be equated with defeat in a major naval battle. Meanwhile, all Russian ships survived thanks to the favourable location of the Sevastopol Bay.
The shocked Emperor of France Napoleon III ordered the leading astronomer W. Le Verrier to create an effective weather forecast service. Three months after the storm, the first forecast map appeared in Balaklava – a prototype of those that we see in the news today, and a year later thirteen weather stations started operating in France. While the coalition troops were calculating the losses, the newspapers wrote about this terrible tragedy on the Black Sea. On December 16, 1854, The Illustrated London News reported that among the valuable cargo carried by the “Prince” were things: 36,700 pairs of woollen socks, 53,000 woollen shirts, 2,500 patrol sheepskin coats, 16,000 sheets, 3,750 blankets. In addition of 15,000 pieces of sleeping bags, 90,000 pairs of pants, about 40,000 blankets, 40,000 waterproof hats, 40,000 fur coats and 120,000 pairs of boots. The loss of life was also colossal – about 1,500 people. The HMS Prince alone was missing 500 soldiers. The losses were so enormous that the British government chose to conceal their true scale from their subjects.
At that time, the general public did not even know about the valuable cargo that was on the HMS Prince. But, by the end of the war a rumour spread that, in addition to sleeping bags and woollen socks, the vessel had something much more interesting – barrels of gold intended as payment for the troops.
The treasure legend lured hunters of different nationalities to try to discover the sunken freighter and its allegedly valuable cargo. True, there was a discrepancy about the value of the precious cargo: 200 thousand pounds, a million pounds, 500 thousand francs but as the maritime gold rush unfolded, reports of the prize waiting for brave adventurers also grew in size, reaching 6 million pounds sterling in some reports. Numerous failures to find the treasure among the wreckages dotting the seabed of Balaklava Bay did not discourage would-be bounty hunters, and only the start of World War II put the search on hold.
In France, in 1875, a joint-stock company with a fairly large, fixed capital was formed specifically for the search for the British gold. However, the treasure hunters suffered one setback after another. No one could find not only gold, but even the sunken ship itself. The search for gold resumed in 1922, when at the bottom at the entrance to Balaklava Bay, one of the local divers found several gold coins. And at the beginning of 1923, engineer V. Yazykov appeared in the United Main Political Directorate (OGPU) in Moscow. For fifteen years he was collecting bit by bit information about the HMS Prince, knocked down many thresholds with a request to organize an expedition, but, oddly enough, found support only from the Chekists. Soon, an order was signed at Lubyanka to create a special underwater expedition (EPRON) under the Special Department of the OGPU USSR. The security officers began to prepare with enthusiasm for the search for treasures. The construction of the deep-sea vehicle was personally supervised by Genrikh Yagoda (a Soviet secret police official who served as director of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s security and intelligence agency). The structure for three people, equipped with a telephone, a searchlight and a mechanical arm for grabbing goods, was made in three months. It turned out to be much more difficult to collect information about the sunken ship and its cargo, yet the British and Italians stubbornly kept silent.
At its own peril and risk, in the fall of 1923, EPRON began work in the Balaklava Bay. On September 2nd and 9th, the deep-sea vehicle was lowered to the bottom, where a lot of ship wreckage was found, but it was not possible to find at least something similar to the English frigate. And yet the Chekists did not give up. Finally, in October 1924, they found a steam boiler but apart from a hand grenade, a washstand and other nonsense, they did not find anything.
In December 1924, the search project had to be curtailed. Funds – 100 thousand rubles did not pay off. But later, the Japanese diving company “Shinkai Kogyossio Limited” became interested in the project. They promised EPRON 110 thousand rubles for searches on the sunken ship and 60 percent of the gold, which was supposed to be raised from the Prince. In addition, they promised to teach Soviet divers the intricacies of their craft and to hand over samples of Japanese diving equipment. In the summer of 1927, the Japanese arrived at Balaklava. 12 divers descended to the bottom every day until they freed a ship from its debris, the remnants of the bow and stern parts of the ship’s hull were outlined quite clearly, but the middle part (where there could be gold) fell through the ground. The trophy turned out to be more than modest: a rusty lock, galoshes, two forks, a spoon, a hub from a wheel, and several horseshoes. Beyond their disappointment, they again raised a vessel of 1821 to the surface. But then there were four coins and nothing else. Since then, cheerful optimists have been combing the bottom of the Balaklava Bay, but no one has given gold in their hands.
Recently, Ukrainian media report that a diving expedition has found the Prince, a century-and-a-half after its sinking. They have lifted a plate from the seabed with the logo of the owner of the Prince on it. Since the company had only two ships near Balaklava during the 1854 storm, and the other one survived it, researchers say their find must be from the legendary vessel. The divers have also discovered cannon balls and medical supplies. The expedition however is not expecting to discover any gold, as most historians now believe that the Prince had none on board. The treasure rumour was apparently instigated by the similarity of the Prince’s name with another British vessel, the steamer “Black Prince”, which was indeed used to transport payment for troops. The sunken freighter had been referred to as Black Prince by many authors in both historical books and numerous works of fiction.
Above all, if there had been gold on the Prince when it left Britain, it would have been unloaded in Istanbul, where the British Chief Quartermaster’s headquarters were located.