April 20th, 2012

My Two Cents’ Worth: The High Seize

by Ed Reiter

Something’s rotten in the Kingdom of Spain.

Perhaps it’s the stench surrounding the 17 tons of gold and silver coins recently “repatriated” by Spain from the U.S. firm that recovered them from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

If so, the odor’s coming not from the coins themselves but from the Spanish government, which pressed a dubious claim to ownership of the coins, then—with help from a compliant U.S. court system—whisked all 17 tons out from under the noses of the people who spent millions finding and salvaging the coins.

The treasure is now in España, where it was hastily flown in two Spanish military planes after being spirited away from an Air Force base in Florida on Feb. 24—scant hours after a U.S. judge lifted the last legal barrier to its removal. The coins had been in Florida for more than four years, after being taken there by Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Tampa-based company that found the treasure in May 2007 off the coast of Portugal.

Odyssey said the coins, widely dispersed on the ocean floor, came from the wreckage of a ship whose identity couldn’t be conclusively determined. Spain staked an immediate claim, insisting that the remains were those of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate that sank in 1804.

Under a law of the sea known as “the doctrine of sovereign immunity,” a nation never loses ownership of an active-duty warship that is sunk in an engagement with an enemy. But in this case, doubt exists as to whether this doctrine applied.

First, Odyssey steadfastly maintained that its salvage operations failed to confirm the name or nature of the ship, whose resting place, in international waters, was in an area known to be a graveyard for ill-fated vessels over the centuries. And despite Spain’s self-serving assertions, no conclusive evidence emerged that this was indeed the wreck of the Mercedes—and whether, if so, it was serving as a “warship” when it sank.

 

Then there’s the matter of those 17 tons of precious-metal coinage. What war-related purpose did this treasure serve? Perhaps Spain was arming itself to wage war on werewolves and needed a source for silver bullets. Incidentally, Odyssey estimates the value of the treasure in today’s marketplace at half a billion dollars, making it one of the richest troves ever found in a single shipwreck site.

Because of the questions about the ship’s identity, Odyssey gave the salvage operation the code name “Black Swan.” Even if the ship was the Mercedes, a vessel described by Spain as a warship, evidence suggests that its mission at the time was commercial, since more than two-thirds of the coins were bound for private merchants, not the King. Odyssey has argued that if it was commercial, the doctrine of sovereign immunity wouldn’t apply.

Historical documents show the Mercedes—part of a four-frigate convoy—was laden with New World treasure when it exploded and sank on Oct. 5, 1804, during an encounter with a squadron from the British Royal Navy. The British squadron intercepted the convoy as it was en route to the Spanish port of Cadiz. Britain and Spain weren’t at war at the time, but the British feared that Spain was allying itself with France, Britain’s foe in the Napoleonic Wars.

Among Spain’s most outrageous laments is that Odyssey stole property that was part of its national heritage. Given the source of the treasure on the Mercedes, this heritage is tainted, to say the least. If anyone “stole” the treasure, it was Spain, which enslaved native peoples in the Americas, plundered their wealth and forced them to supply new gold and silver over a span of centuries.

U.S. courts supported Spain at every step—and this gave rise to a credible conspiracy theory when WikiLeaks disclosed that the U.S. government had sought to arrange a secret deal whereby Spain would return a valuable painting to a California family in return for U.S. assistance in getting the coins.

As things turned out, Spain got the coins and kept the painting, too.

Its ship has come in—flying the Jolly Roger.

2012 . Articles . Issues . May . My Two Cents