The Platinum of the SS Port Nicholson – A Cautionary Tale

The Independent has just done a wonderful piece on the SS Port Nicholson, a World War II-era refrigerated cargo ship sunk by a u-boat while on route from Halifax to Boston. It’s really worth reading the complete piece, but I will include some quotes, summary and commentary of my own.

Early in 2012, a former swimming pool installer turned treasure hunter called Greg Brooks made global headlines when he announced the discovery of the SS Port Nicholson – a British freighter sunk off America in 1942, thought to be carrying £1.9bn of Russian platinum to pay for weaponry to help an increasingly desperate Stalin defeat Hitler.

Even by the swashbuckling standards of hunts for unusual shipwrecks, it was a compelling tale. The smoke-belching British vessel had left the Arctic port of Murmansk in the summer 1942 secretly laden with 71 tons of precious metal, safeguarded by two Soviet special envoys, before it was holed by two torpedoes fired by a Nazi U-boat and sank in 700ft of water off the Massachusetts coast. (The Independent)


But did it really contains such a wealth of platinum? Seventy-one tons would be a truly extraordinary amount of precious metal, especially platinum. And despite many seasons of work, not a single bar was uncovered. Digging deeper, the story becomes increasingly convoluted.

In order for the Port Nicholson to have been carrying the 71 tons claimed by Mr Brooks, the vessel would have been holding five years’ of the entire global supply of the precious metal. (The Independent)

Once examined more closely, the evidence began to fall apart.

…the treasure hunter paid an American researcher, Edward Michaud, to seek extra proof of the platinum cargo by looking through records relating to the Port Nicholson… what Mr Michaud found appeared to confirm that the 500ft-long coal-fired freighter was indeed on a secret mission to deliver Soviet payments under America’s Lend-Lease scheme to provide equipment to its allies, including Britain. After the U-boat attack it sank slowly, allowing time to rescue all but six of the 91 crew. One of the two corroborating documents unearthed by the researcher, supposedly from a former US naval intelligence officer named Jack MacCann, was the passenger and cargo manifest carrying the word “bullion”. But in a submission to the American court last December, Mr Brooks was forced into a disastrous admission. He explained that Mr Michaud had (admitted) that he had fabricated the two documents in question. (The Independent)


In fairness, there had been skeptics all along. The British government, historians and many in the media cast great doubt on the heavily-publicized 2012 announcement. But even after admitting to being mislead, Mr. Brooks seems unbowed.

(Mr. Brooks): “The UK has never litigated [over the ownership] of a freighter, except the Port Nicholson. Why? I 100 per cent believe there is something about the Port Nicholson. Why didn’t [the British Government] just let us waste our money to see what’s in her if they say there’s nothing? I have put everything into this project, spent every penny I have, fought two governments, risked my life and my crews more than once, and so much more. Will I give up? No.” (The Independent)

Despite such bravado, it’s likely that Mr. Brooks’ remaining involvement with the Port Nicholson will take place exclusively within the court system, perhaps even the criminal justice system. The Port Nicholson has now become more legend then living memory, joining ranks with the Oak Island Money Pit, Montezuma’s Treasure and other such folklore… remaining to some the greatest platinum treasure in history.

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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