Article: A ship torpedoed in WW2, lost silver bars and SA’s fight to keep them

Caryn Dolley, June 2, 2024,

A picture of the S.S.Tilawa
A case involving South Africa, silver bars worth millions of rands and a company in the UK reveals links to Japan’s torpedoing of an ocean liner in 1942, which killed nearly 300 people.

early 82 years ago, two torpedoes were fired from a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean. These hit a British India Steam Navigation Company ocean liner, the SS Tilawa, sinking it and killing 280 passengers.

Also on it were 2,364 bars of silver in transit from Mumbai to Durban, which ended up on the seabed.

Several decades later, in 2017, the silver was recovered.

The tycoon and the treasure hunter

It became the centre of legal proceedings – involving a company registered in the UK, Argentum Exploration Ltd, and the South African government – that only wound up in May 2024.

According to the BBC, Argentum is owned by Sir Paul Marshall. Daily Maverick confirmed this through a company search.

A UK government website describes him as the “chairman and chief investment officer of Marshall Wace LLP, one of Europe’s leading hedge fund groups”.

It added: “Sir Paul received a knighthood for services to education and philanthropy in 2016.

“Sir Paul was previously lead non-executive board member at the Department for Education.”

Marshall ran Argentum with another individual, Ross Hyett, a racing driver who is referred to in some British media as a “treasure hunter”.

Silver worth R792-million

Argentum initially tried, but failed, to claim ownership of the silver, which in 2020 was worth about R792-million.

It then asserted it had retrieved the silver, and the company argued it was therefore entitled to a claim for salvaging the loot from the seabed.

A UK court initially found in Argentum’s favour, but South Africa appealed and, on 8 May, the UK Supreme Court said that though a settlement in the matter was reached the previous month, in April, it would allow South Africa’s appeal.

The history underpinning that decision is fascinating as well as tragic, and stretches across several countries and decades.

According to details in the UK Supreme Court judgment, the silver bars were despatched from the Bombay (now Mumbai) Mint on 17 November 1942 to the ocean liner SS Tilawa, which was destined for Durban.

The government of India sold the bars and arranged the contract for them to be transported.

A picture of the S.S.Tilawa
The SS Tilawa

Coins for South Africa

According to the judgment, “the silver was procured for the production of coin for both the Union of South Africa (a sovereign purpose) and Egypt (a commercial purpose)”.

Most of the silver, though, was meant to be made into coins.

The silver never made it to Durban.

“The vessel was sunk by two torpedoes fired from a Japanese submarine in the Indian Ocean on 23 November 1942,” the judgment stated.

It did not go into detail about the SS Tilawa tragedy.

A website dedicated to the tragedy describes what happened as “a dramatic event that would end the lives of 280 passengers and alter the lives of many survivors”.

A picture of the S.S.Tilawa
The SS Tilawa

Torpedoed ocean liner

It says the SS Tilawa had been “transporting mostly Indian nationals en route to Mombasa, Maputo and Durban [when it was] torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Seychelles Islands”.

The website questions “what exactly led the Japanese submarine I-29 Commander to order not one, but two torpedoes to be launched at the Tilawa”.

Meanwhile, according to the UK Supreme Court judgment, “the silver was recovered from the seabed at a depth of some 2½ kilometres” via a salvage vessel between 29 January and 23 June 2017.

“The silver was then carried to the United Kingdom, arriving in Southampton on 2 October 2017… It was brought to the United Kingdom because Argentum understood that the silver belonged to the UK government,” the judgment said.

‘Finders keepers’ attempt

In 2019, Argentum tried having it declared that it was the owner of the silver.

However, the judgment said the company “now accepts that the [South African] government is the owner of the silver”.

Argentum still pushed ahead with a claim for the salvage operation, which means it wanted payment for recovering the silver.

It did so even though it retrieved the silver without any prior agreement with South Africa. Under maritime law, a voluntary salvage claim is permissible, and this is what Argentum proceeded with against South Africa.

Life boat from SS Tilawa in process of sinking due to overloading. Person in white clothing in centre of picture is thought to be captain F.Robertson
A lifeboat from the SS Tilawa sinks owing to overloading. The person in white clothing in the centre of picture is thought to be captain F Robertson.


The judgment said that on 3 May 2024 “we were informed by the parties that a settlement had been arrived at in this matter on 26 April 2024”.

Details of the settlement were not divulged.

Even though a settlement was reached, it was still agreed that the judgment in the matter should be handed down.

It found: “The silver was a non-commercial cargo owned by a state and entitled, at the time of salvage operations, to sovereign immunity under generally recognised principles of international law.”

The judgment added: “We would allow [South Africa’s] appeal.”

Meanwhile, the website about the SS Tilawa tragedy contains accounts by those who survived it, including a man named Chunilal Navsaria.

‘Panicked screams’

“I was one of the passengers on board the Tilawa that night. It set sail from Bombay on 20th November 1942, bound for Mombasa, East Coast Ports and Durban,” he recounts.

“On the night of 23rd November, when I [was] just about falling into a deep sleep, I heard a loud violent explosion. I awoke with a terrible fright.”

Navsaria grabbed a life jacket and headed to a deck that provided access to lifeboats. He managed to get on one.

“The time now was 02h00 on that bright moonlit night. I could clearly see the Tilawa’s lights and flare signal.

“With tearful eyes, I watched as the other frantic passengers stampeded into lifeboats, trying to lower them and save themselves from a terrible fate. I could hear their panicked screams and mournful tragic cries,” Navsaria writes.

“The ship, though its head had already sunk, was still afloat. About half an hour later, while the frantic activities were still going on, a second torpedo exploded on the port side and within five minutes the Tilawa… sank.” DM