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Shipwreck yields $500M haul - Richest shipwreck treasure?

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Author Topic: Shipwreck yields $500M haul - Richest shipwreck treasure?  (Read 237 times)
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« on: June 10, 2007, 06:18:11 am »


Sunday, June 10, 2007


Treasure ship's half-billion-dollar question: Who owns the past?

Published June 10, 2007

Pounded by a storm on the last leg of a five-week journey, the Merchant Royal limped through the sea on Sept. 23, 1641, weighed down by tons of gold, silver and jewels.

Its 80-man crew feverishly worked two pumps to keep out the ocean that was leaking through the groaning and gapping planks of the Royal.

Though the ship was privately owned by Britons, it carried a load of treasure fresh from Spain's American mines. The doubloons' original courier, a Spanish treasure ship, had arrived at the Azores islands aflame. Spanish authorities put out the fires and hired the 700-ton Royal to complete the trip, not unusual when the lines of public and private, nationality and allegiance, crossed in far different ways than today.

When the news reached London, Britain's secretary of state interrupted Parliament to announce that the Royal had sunk 10 leagues, or roughly 30 miles, off Land's End, the country's southwestern point. It was one of the largest seafaring disasters of the time.

According to a contemporaneous account in Ye Olde Maile, as the ship and its crew approached the English channel, "night came on and foule weather, they plyed their two chaine pumps, in midst of which labour both the pumpe chaines broke at once and fell into the wells."

Most of the crew escaped in a longboat to be rescued by the Dover Merchant, a smaller ship accompanying the Royal on its journey.

Seven men, the broadsheet says, ran down to fill their pockets with treasure and drowned in the ship as it sank.

"The Captaine was the last, who would not forsake her until she was sunke even unto her cook-roome ports."

Now, the Merchant Royal might return from the sea, complete with its silver, gold, jewels and 36 bronze cannon.

And with recovery will come questions. Who owns treasure from a different time, a different world? Spain, the country that mined the gold and silver? England, the country whose ship transported it? The descendants of the slaves who dug it out of mines in the bowels of the Earth? The captain whose ship and personal fortune sunk? Or is it finder's keepers?

And if a country lays a claim, how similar is, say, the England of 1641 - in which civil war was about to break out and a king to lose his head - to the England of today? Can a ship that went down in one world, a mere 21 years after the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock, be claimed by another, ours? If the rule of law reaches so far back, can people or nations be held accountable for transgressions such as slavery from those same times?


Last month, Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration released footage of gold and silver coins it says came from a shipwreck. The company has been tight-lipped about the ship's identity, saying officials still need to verify it.

British shipwreck historian Richard Larn, who maintains the seven-volume, nearly 50, 000-entry Lloyd's Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, said he's almost certain Odyssey has found the Royal.

Larn lives near Land's End, Britain's southwest tip. For two years, local fishermen have watched Odyssey's sonar ships combing the sea about 24 miles from Larn's home.

"That's the rough area where the records say that the Merchant Royal sank, " Larn said, and the Royal is the only wreck anywhere near the English Channel that holds the amount of treasure Odyssey recovered.

At a shipwreck conference in 2005, Larn added, Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm asked him if he knew anything that might aid the company in a search for the Merchant Royal.

When he found out last month about the company's find, "I was very pleased for them and I was very envious, " Larn said.

Fragile history

Some archaeologists, however, worry that a for-profit company like Odyssey could overlook the Royal's enormous historical value, erasing traces of the past that exist nowhere else.

"I have to part ways fundamentally with the idea of selling what is found, " said Jim Delgado, executive director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University. "The flash of gold and silver often obscures the history."

He added that a colonial-era ship like the Royal could teach historians a great deal about the period.

"We know more about Roman seafaring than we know about the role of ships in the rise of the modern world economy, " he said.

Subtle clues that might seem worthless to treasure hunters can lead to major discoveries for historians. For example, the scatter pattern of a decaying ship's cargo can help experts figure out what the ship looked like - but only if the wreckage is carefully photographed before any items are moved.

Delgado gave another vivid example, from the "Gelidonya wreck, " a merchant ship that sank 3, 000 years ago off the Turkish coast. The team excavating the site found a box filled with "concretion, " a hardened mix of oxidized metal and dirt. By slicing up the block, they found perfect impressions of a Bronze Age woodworker's tools.

"Archaeology costs. When you have shareholders seeking the maximum profit, extensive archaeology gets in the way, " he said. When it comes to commercially salvaged shipwrecks, "in every case I'm aware of, commercial value has outstripped scientific value."

The waters around Florida are filled with ruined wrecks, places where treasure hunters used explosives or the force of their propellers to grind the site up in search of gold.

"If we have, say, a fish population in the gulf, we can change laws and regulations so hopefully they bounce back, " said University of West Florida archaeologist Greg Cook. "The problem with shipwrecks is they don't bounce back."

'Unbelievable validation'

Larn, the British historian, agreed that commercial companies are more likely than academics to damage a site - but said if the treasure hunters didn't find it, no one would.

"If companies like Odyssey and others didn't go out to do it many shipwrecks would never have been found, " Larn said.

John Opperman, who heads Odyssey's archaeology, research and conservation team, defended the publicly traded company's mission.

"Obviously our shareholders want us to come up with shiny discs - they get jazzed about it - but we want the artifacts that tell a story, " he said.

He gave the example of the mustard barrels and Worcestershire sauce bottles recovered from Odyssey's single previous discovery, a 19th-century paddlewheel steamer, the SS Republic.

"The food probably didn't taste too well back then, hence all the sauces, " Opperman said.

Opperman himself is not a trained archaeologist. A former telecommunications consultant, he helps the company's four full-time and 12 part-time archaeologists direct the marine operations team, which drives the ships and deep-water robots.

He said "best-practice archaeology" is the team's "mantra." The fact that they found the trove shows the research expertise of the team, he said.

Opperman referred to the ship as the "Black Swan, " Odyssey's code-name for the discovery.

He called it an "unbelievable validation that our principles of research and archaeology really, really made that happen."

A fraught claim

Even after all that work, Odyssey's bonanza is not yet secure. Some experts have suggested Odyssey knows which ship it has found but stays mum to ward off history's hold on the wreck.

The Spanish government, for example, has already pledged to take the company to court over the treasure it lost so long ago. But the world has changed a great deal since 1641.

For Delgado, the Texas A&M archaeologist, the "Black Swan" controversy is about "who owns the past, and what the most appropriate uses of the past are."

And who knows - Spain used slaves to rip the gold, silver and jewels from the earth. Their descendants might want a cut.

By 1641, Europe had spent decades choked by war. Spain had been fighting the Dutch for more than 70 years to maintain its empire in the Low Countries, and planned to use the Royal's cargo pay its soldiers in Flanders. Meanwhile, the Thirty Years' War raged in Germany between most of the countries in Western Europe.

By the time both wars ended in 1648, Europe had been devastated. In Germany alone, an estimated 20 percent of the population had succumbed to fighting, famine and disease.

Meanwhile the Spanish empire - one of the largest in history - entered its twilight. Since the mid 1500s, Spanish conquistadores had dominated indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. Remnants of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas labored to send gold and silver to Spain's armies in Europe.

A careful examination could generate "sympathy for the people whose lives were rolled under and plundered, " said Delgado, as well as for the hard-bitten sailors who worked on the ship. "You start putting voices back into the record for people whose story was never written down."

That old British broadsheet described Capt. John Limbrey's depression at the loss of his ship:

"The Captaine on his landing repaired to his house and family, with a hankercher about his neck, and will not be seen or spoken with (as yet) by any his grief is so great."

Which, incidentally, introduces yet another claim on the bullion: Limbrey's descendants could try to recover part of their ancestor's personal fortune, which sank with the ship.

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed@ or (813) 226-3404.

[Last modified June 9, 2007, 19:45:18]
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