After Japanese bombers attacked Darwin, the Wessel Islands – off Australia’s north coast – became a strategic position to help protect the mainland. Maurie Isenberg from the Royal Australian Air Force was stationed on one of the islands to man a radar station and spent his spare time fishing on the beaches. While sitting in the sand, he discovered a handful of coins – puzzled by them, he placed them in a tin and marked a map with an ‘X’ to remember where he had found them.
It was not until 35 years later when he tried to sell the coins, that Mr Isenberg would become aware of the “treasure” he had found.
The coins proved to be 1,000 years old, and sparked the interest of the science community, including anthropologist Ian McIntosh – who dubbed them “priceless”.
Prof McIntosh and his team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists and Aboriginal rangers believed the five coins date back to the 900s to 1300s.
European sailors are known to have sailed the coast of Australia in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until Captain James Cook landed in Sydney’s Botany Bay in 1770 that the British laid claim to the country.
The coins, believed to have originated in the medieval sultanate of Kilwa – an area which is now in Tanzania – led to speculation that parts of northern Australia were visited by other mariners from as far away as the Middle East and Africa.
Prof McIntosh wrote in a paper for the journal ‘Australian Folklore,’ that “the argument for the involvement of Kilwa traders and also the Portuguese is quite compelling”.
He noted the sea route from Kilwa in East Africa to Oman and then onto India, Malaysia and Australia’s close neighbour Indonesia was well established by the 1500s and probably for many hundreds of years before that.
While the theory could rewrite the history books, the academic admitted the coins may have simply washed ashore.
For now, the mystery lives on.
Prof McIntosh added in 2013: “These coins probably remained in circulation for a couple of hundred years but only in the vicinity of East Africa, beyond that, they didn’t have value.
“Nowhere else in the world have they been found, except for northern Australia.
“It is very unusual. It’s had everybody puzzled.”