US battle for 2bn undersea treasure
The most valuable shipwreck ever found off Florida, but France and Spain claim it owns the 250-years old galleon
By Giles Tremlett - The Guardian
For nearly 250 years the caskets of gold, silver and emeralds lay undisturbed alongside the fish-cleaned bones of the sailors who went to the bottom of the sea with them. But now the glittering cargo of a Spanish treasure-ship is the centre of a bitter international row.
A Florida court recently awarded a group of American treasure hunters limited rights over what may be the world's most valuable undersea find - an estimated £2bn worth of treasure on board a wreck that they claim is the long-lost Notre Dame de la Deliverance galleon.
But the treasure hunters were yesterday facing fierce opposition from Spain and France as they fought for absolute ownership of the cargo that the Spanish king Charles 3rd was sending home from his vast New World empire.
The Deliverance was caught by a fierce hurricane as it passed near the Florida Keys on November 1 1755, a day after setting sail from Havana with treasures extracted from mines in Mexico, Peru and Colombia. Many of its crew of 500 Frenchmen and Spaniards who survived the wreck were reportedly eaten by Florida's cannibalistic Calusa tribe.
Now, nearly 250 years later, the Portland-based Sub Sea Research company claims to have located the Deliverance, lying 200ft under water on a flat, silty seabed, some 40 miles off Key West.
The remains of the 50.5-metre-long vessel, armed with 64 cannon, are spread over 18 square miles of seabed, the company claimed when it persuaded the Florida court to allow it to 'arrest' the sunken vessel. Divers said the top-heavy wooden ship had split into two parts.
'It was one of the richest ships ever lost,' Greg Brooks, one of Sub Sea Research's owners, told the Miami Daily Business Review.
The Florida court decision prevented modern underwater buccaneers from launching their own raids on the sunken galleon while a decision was made over who would win the salvage rights.
Although historians and archaeologists are not yet fully certain that the ship is the Deliverance, the company produced lead sheathing, of the kind used to protect the vessel's hull from worms, in court. It said the lead casing was the only thing removed from the ship by its divers.
The company also produced a partial manifest for the vessel. This detailed the cargo as including 437kg of gold bullion carried in seventeen chests, 15,399 gold doubloons, 153 gold snuff boxes, a gold-hilted sword, a gold watch, 1,072,000 pieces of eight, 24kg of virgin silver, 14kg of silver ore, a large number of items made of silver, six pairs of diamond earrings, a diamond ring and several chests of precious stones as well as cocoa and indigo. Intriguingly, the manifesto also reportedly referred to unspecified 'drugs'.
The cargo would be worth up to three times that on the biggest treasure ship to date - the SS Central America, which took bullion from the California gold rush to the bottom of the sea off South Carolina in 1857 and was recovered in the 1990s.
A Spanish embassy spokesman in Washington said yesterday that the Deliverance will almost certainly be claimed by Spain under the terms of a 1902 treaty with the US. 'The Spanish position has backing from both the supreme court and the statements of a US president,' he said. He said Spain's claim would be based both on the fact that the vessel was an underwater grave to Spanish sailors and the fact that its cargo had belonged to the Spanish state.
Sub Sea, however, insist that the battle for the treasure is wide open.
'They've cast a blanket over this thing before anybody really knows that it is the Deliverance,' Guy Burnette, Sub Sea's attorney, complained yesterday.
US backs Spain
The US state department appears to back Spain. It told Sub Sea Research that, after a supreme court decision last year refused the treasure-hunter Ben Benson and the state of Virginia the right to the contents of the Spanish frigate Juno, Spain's permission was needed before its treasure-ships could be touched.
The 34-gun Juno was sunk with 413 soldiers and crew in a storm in 1750. She was reported to have left Veracruz with some 700,000 silver coins, now worth £357m. Although Spain claims its fiercely protective attitude to the wrecks is motivated by concern for the watery graves of thousands of sailors, it is also keen to cash in on the fortunes they hold.
The Juno case was sparked by Spanish anger over the £270m of silver and precious stones raised by another famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha galleon in 1985.
Some 250 Spanish vessels, including the bulk of three treasure fleets sunk by storms in 1622, 1715, and 1733 are thought to contain billions of pounds of treasure obtained from across Latin America.
A schoolteacher and part-time diver found a 40-carat emerald, worth millions of pounds and thought to have come from a Spanish galleon, in a conch shell just a few miles from the site where the Deliverance was thought to lie.
The claim to the Deliverance is further complicated by the fact that Spain was in the middle of a bitter war with Britain in the mid-18th century. That sucked in all its available fighting ships and forced it to hire the services of the French West Indies company to transport what should have been a major contribution to Charles III's war chest.
The Deliverance was a French West Indies company ship, mainly crewed by French sailors, and thus could also be claimed as French property. Sub Sea Research claims, however, that with the French company long defunct, there is no legal owner.