Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Ships: Historical Turning Point?
La Nuestra, whose name means "Our Lady of the Mercies" in English, was sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in the Battle of Cape Santa Maria on October 5, 1804. She lay below wave, without any serious attempts by the Spanish government to locate her, until 2007. In that year she was discovered, claimed and excavated by the marine recovery company Odyssey Marine Exploration.
Odyssey, who has worked with various governments in the past including the U.S. and Britain, has also been vilified by others. One Odyssey team was famously - and publicly - fired upon by the French navy. The entire event was captured on film for a piece on The Discovery Channel. Odyssey's most pivotal stand off with any government came when Spain claimed the excavation of La Nuestra to be an "expoliation" or illegal grab of the country's "historical artifacts." Spain filed a suit in U.S. court and a judge in Florida's Federal Court of Appeals ruled that all artifacts attached to La Nuestra officially belonged to Spain.
The enormous trove, which included gold and silver coins in the hundereds of thousands as well as jewelry, religious statuary and furnishings, was officially handed over to Spain by Odyssey in February of this year.
While, on the face of it, this seems only fair, the ruling of the Florida judge could effectively sound the death knell for exploration of the kind Odyssey is so very expert at. Why should Odyssey or any other company spend their own money amounting to millions of dollars to locate, identify, excavate, clean et cetera any ship and its cargo when the ultimate outcome will yeild them zero in the way of profit? We are none of us prepared to work that hard for "free." Risking life and limb to bring forth the world's maritime history should have some pay off, shouldn't it?
Meanwhile, imagining that government's like Spain's would be willing to partner with companies like Odyssey is most probably a pipe dream. Where, just exactly, would the money come from? There's a reason why Odyssey is out finding shipwrecks and the many governments who can claim them as artifacts are not.
It is far easier to pounce in a court filing after all the hard work is done. A judge in Florida has made it possible for any other country to do the same thing. Precedent, legally speaking, is precedent.
On a final note, this very brief article from ABC News makes it quite clear, without coming out and saying so, that Spanish authorities basically have no idea what they will do with their haul. At this point, some of the artifacts will be put on display. From there, it appears to be anyone's guess.
Header: Four Frigates Capturing Spanish Treasure Ships October 5, 1804 by Francis Sartorius c 1807 via Wikipedia