On Netflix’s new show Outer Banks, the central mystery revolves around a British ship called the Royal Merchant, which sunk off the North Carolina coast nearly 200 years ago. It was supposedly carrying $400 million worth of the Crown’s gold, so naturally, every treasure hunter around has tried to find it.
In fact, Big John Rutledge (Charles Halford), the father of the show’s main character, John B (Chase Stokes), went missing in his quest to find the gold, about a year before the events of the show. So, viewers may be wondering if the Royal Merchant is a real ship.
The answer is — yes and no.
The Royal Merchant Is a Real Ship
According to NPR Chicago’s 2014 interview with historian John R. Schmidt, the Merchant Royal (or Royal Merchant, as it was also known) was a real British commercial ship that did trading in the West Indies. It sunk carrying 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 bars of Mexican silver, and 500,000 pieces of eight and other coins, according to History Collection. Schmidt says that amounts to over $2 billion in today’s money, making it one of the most valuable shipwrecks in the world.
“News of this sinking soon spread throughout Europe and it had an immediate effect, a profound effect on the traders and bankers and the insurers and that’s not even talking about the 30,000 Spanish soldiers in this payday,” said Schmidt, referring to the soldiers who were in Flanders, Belgium, and were to be paid with the treasure from the Merchant Royal.
However… this is not the ship from Outer Banks.
The Merchant Royal Sunk Off the Coast of England
After completing its trading in the West Indies, the Merchant Royal stopped in Cadiz, Spain, where it learned that a Spanish ship had caught fire and couldn’t deliver its treasure to the soldiers waiting in Belgium. So the captain of the Merchant Royal agreed to add that gold to his ship and deliver it to the soldiers (for a fee, of course).
But on September 23, 1641, 30 miles off the coast of Cornwall, England, the ship ran into a storm and sank. The captain and many crew members were rescued by its sister ship, the Dover Merchant, but the treasure was lost.
Schmidt says that there were rumors that Odyssey Marine Exploration found the shipwreck in 2007, but it eventually came to light that the shipwreck that salvage company found was actually the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804. Incidentally, the salvage company was ordered to turn the $600 million treasure over to Spain and also pay Spain $1 million in legal fees, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
However, in March 2019, the British fishing crew of the Spirited Lady found quite a surprise when they hauled in one of their nets — what is believed to be the Merchant Royal’s anchor. It was found 20 miles south of Land’s End, Cornwall, England, according to Cornwall Live. Experts identified it as belonging to the Merchant Royal due to its age and size. Mark Milburn, an expert shipwreck diver, began working to restore the anchor and preserve it. He also told The London Economic that the presumed location of the wreck is too dangerous for amateur divers to attempt an expedition.
“The spot where it was found is about 300ft deep – there are very few people that are qualified to dive that deep,” said Milburn. “I’ll be going out there to have a look, but we’ve got to wait for the right conditions and because the conditions are so treacherous the window is very narrow. The site is exposed and we need the tide to be right and a weekend with no wind. Because of the depth, you don’t get long to look for it. It’s dangerous diving. It takes a lot of equipment and most divers know that – you need to be an experienced technical diver.”
Outer Banks’ 10-episode first season is available now on Netflix.
READ NEXT: ‘Outer Banks’ Cast and Premiere Spoilers