Sunken Treasures

Manila Bulletin, March 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

Sunken Treasures


MANILA, Philippines - A treasure trove of gold and silver worth an estimated half a billion dollars, recovered from a Spanish warship sunk more than 200 years ago, was returned to its rightful owners after a long court battle between the Spanish government and a Florida-based salvage company.

Odyssey Marine Exploration salvaged off Portugal's Atlantic Coast 594,000 gold and silver coins (nearly 17 tons) from a shipwreck believed to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, and brought the treasure to the US in May 2007.

Spain filed suit shortly thereafter in a federal court in Tampa, Florida, claiming rights to the sunken treasure.

International treaties generally hold that warships sunk in battle are protected from treasure hunters and the Spanish government successfully argued that it had never abandoned ownership of the ship or its contents.

Odyssey took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where it lost in its final attempt to retain ownership of the loot. Peru argued without success a claim for the gold coins which were mined, refined, and minted there.

HISTORICAL FOOTNOTES. Closer to home, the Dutch squadron led by Oliver van Noort attacked on December 14, 1600, the Spanish fleet off Philippine waters, sinking the flagship San Diego which was unable to fire its guns. (Its gun ports were closed because they were under the waterline of the ship which was perilously overloaded).

Capitan Antonio de Morga lost the San Diego and 350 men, but he was able to swim back to shore and would eventually publish Sucesos de las islas Filipinas in 1609, one of the most important works on the early history of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines.

The critical part of the tome drew a rejoinder from Dr. Jose Rizal, La Indolencia de los Filipinos (The Indolence of the Filipinos).

Morga blamed the loss of the San Diego on the captain of the Spanish vessel San Bartolome for pursuing another Dutch ship instead of attacking the Mauritius. The Dutch account of the battle was not flattering to Morga.

Van Noort returned to the Netherlands and became the first Dutchman to circumnavigate the world.

RAISING THE SAN DIEGO. French explorers led by Franck Goddio and sponsored by El Acquitaine excavated the sunken San Diego in 1992.

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