Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Indigenous Peoples Claim Uruguay Bounty

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Indigenous Peoples Claim Uruguay Bounty

Article excerpt

A SUDDEN gust of wind rocks the Tiger, a black inflatable dinghy floating in the murky brown water of the Rio de la Plata, just outside the port of Montevideo. As torrential rain descends from the overcast morning sky, a diver emerges from the water and is helped onto the Tiger before it turns and heads toward the nearby beach, where Ruben Collado is watching anxiously.

Mr. Collado, a 55-year-old Argentine, has good reason to be concerned about the premature end of the day's work. Barely 500 yards from where he stands lies one of the world's most valuable treasures, valued at $400 million to $500 million.

It is also one of the most contentious. South American indigenous groups are demanding the treasure be returned to the descendants of its original owners, the continent's native peoples.

For two years, Collado's team of eight divers has been scavenging the rocky seabed near Montevideo, collecting the riches of the Preciado, a French ship chartered by the Spanish in 1792. As the Preciado was leaving the city's port, English pirates attacked and sank it. The ship and its coveted booty of gold, silver, emeralds, and rubies lay 26 feet below sea level for nearly 200 years until Collado gathered a team of divers and experts to get it.

Code-named "Brujas," the operation to rescue the treasure has so far recovered 1,600 gold coins, a number of silver coins, gold bars, cannons, and cannonballs. Each of the gold coins is valued at more than $15,000, and it could take up to 10 years to recover all the treasure. Divers, sometimes working nearly 14 hours per day depending on the weather, are now concentrating their search on a life-size gold statue of the Virgin Mary that the Preciado was taking to Europe.

"It is the most precious and valuable piece of the treasure. But we are having terrible problems with the weather.... It is a very slow and dangerous process," Collado says.

The former professional diver carries in his wallet the first gold and silver coins recovered, and he proudly displays them to visitors. The rest of the recovered treasure lies in the vaults of the Bank of Uruguay, and all profits from its sale will be split equally between Uruguay's government and Collado and his backers, whose identities have been kept secret.

South America's indigenous groups, however, are demanding that at least part of the money from the sale of the treasure be given to the native people from whom it was originally plundered by Spanish conquistadors.

Their anger is compounded by this year's celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus's arrival. The treasure's return, they argue, is the least compensation that should be given to a people who suffered enslavement and near-genocide at the hands of the white colonizers. Its presence in Uruguay is particularly ironic as indigenous people there have been all but wiped out in the last 500 years.

"The important thing to remember is that the riches that were stolen from South America helped in the development of Europe and led to the underdevelopment of this continent," says Carlos Fuentes, coordinator general of the Argentine Aboriginal Foundation, a group representing indigenous people in South America. …

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