Stand and deliver, ye scurvy dogs!: Spain demands return of sunken treasure

The next time you go treasure hunting, you might just want to leave the gold and silver where you find it...

In May 2007, divers from Odyssey Marine, an American salvage company, gave their latest project the name "the Black Swan." In addition to conjuring exciting images of pirates and privateers, the title also concealed the true name of the ship that they were exploring, which Spain contends is the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes. Based on its claim of ownership, Spain has already begun legal proceedings to claim the estimated 17 tons of precious cargo that have been removed from the wreck.

Sunk by the British fleet in 1804, the Nuestra Señora was a treasure ship, conveying gold, silver, and jewels from Spain's colonies in Latin America. Although Spain and Great Britain weren't officially at war at the time, the British were acting under orders from the Admiralty office, which was convinced that Spain was about to declare war. Besides, given that the Spanish opened fire first, this could also be looked at as a case of schoolyard justice, in which the outgunned Spanish started an ill-advised fight against a far superior foe.

One interesting argument that Spain's lawyers have made is that the wreck is a graveyard for the more than 200 sailors who went down with the ship. Oddly enough, Spain isn't demanding the repatriation of the bleached bones of the dead; rather, it is willing to settle for the precious materials that they just happened to go down with. Odyssey is expected to argue that Spain abandoned the wreck, which would make it legally open to salvage. Presumably, the graveyard argument will be used to head off Odyssey's claim; after all, if the site was the final resting place of Spain's honored dead, then Spain can claim that they were leaving it untouched out of respect.

In the meantime, Odyssey's salvage vessel, the Explorer, is effectively imprisoned in the British port of Gibraltar. The Spanish Navy is lying in wait just outside of the port and has threatened to seize the Explorer if it ventures out. On a side note, Spain also claims ownership of Gibraltar, another piece of property that it lost to a far-superior British force.

It's worth noting that the gold and silver originally came from Spain's colony in Peru. From what I remember of fifth-grade history, the Incas weren't huge fans of their European overlords. I'm pretty sure that a good case could be made for Peru's ownership of the precious metals. Still, based on the laws that were in place in 1804, the Incas were, effectively, slaves, which means that they were entitled to absolutely nothing.

Of course, if Spain is citing 1804-era laws, I also have to wonder if the United Kingdom has a claim to the gold, given that British laws at the time protected the material interests of the sailors who seized property on the high seas. While Great Britain and Spain were not, officially, at war, Britain managed to keep a nice percentage of the precious metals that it salvaged during the original sinking.

On the other hand, maybe citing out of date laws to protect a 204-year old wreck is silly. After all, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes has been sitting at the bottom of the ocean for over a hundred years. It is not in Spain's territorial waters; rather, it sits in international waters. For that matter, today's Spain is definitely not the Spain of 204 years ago. While the country still has a king, Spain is officially a constitutional monarchy, and the power rests in a democratically-elected government.

At the end of the day, Spain's case comes down to this: a ship that is no longer theirs is in water that they don't control, containing wealth that was stolen by a government that no longer exists. Somehow, this doesn't sound like a firm claim, no matter how skilled the country's legal pirates may be!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He wonders if "finders keepers, losers weepers" has any bearing in a court of law.
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