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History | Treasure returns to Spain

By Nick Nutter | 6 Sep 2017
Sinking of the Mercedes 1804

Sinking of the Mercedes 1804

The sinking of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

In February 2012 almost 500,000 silver and gold coins, valued at 350 million Euros, were returned to Spain by order of a court in the United States drawing a line under a story that began over 200 years earlier.

In October 1804 Britain was again at war with France. The Treaty of Amiens signed in March 1802 that ended the French Revolutionary Wars lasted barely a year before Britain declared war on France in May 1803, the start of the Napoleonic Wars. An uneasy peace existed between Britain and Spain, the latter being still loosely allied to France under the terms of the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso which had been signed in 1796. Under the terms of that treaty Spain had to pay France 72 million francs annually in the event that France was at war and Spain remained neutral.

In September 1804, undeterred by the legal niceties of not actually being at war with Spain, Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood had ordered Captain Graham Moore of HMS Indefatigable together with three other three frigates HMS Lively, HMS Medusa and HMS Amphion to form a squadron in order to capture what would turn out to be the last of the Spanish treasure fleets from their colonies in South America. Moore set off the blockade Cadiz, the treasure fleet's destination.

Moore sighted the Spanish ships on the 5th October just off Cape Santa Maria in southern Portugal and sent a messenger, Lieutenant Ascott, to the Spanish flagship, the Medea, to explain his orders. The commander of the Spanish treasure convoy, Brigadier Don José de Bustamante y Guerra on the flagship Medea naturally refused to hand over his four laden ships to Moore.

A warning shot across the bows of the Medea failed to have the desired effect and general firing broke out. Within minutes the Spanish ship, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes had exploded and sunk together with its treasure of silver and gold bullion and 240 of its 280 man crew. The remaining three ships were captured and taken first to Gibraltar and then to Gosport. In December 1804 Spain declared war on Britain.

Part of the cargo from the Mercedes

Part of the cargo from the Mercedes

There the treasure would have stayed if not for Odyssey Marine Exploration, an American company specialising in hunting for submerged treasure. They conducted a seabed survey off Cape Santa Maria in 2007 and found the wreck site. They subsequently raised over 500,000 coins that were taken in great secrecy to Gibraltar and then to America. The story became public with a number of conflicting accounts as to where the treasure had been found and the likely ship it was from. Eventually the ship was identified as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and the location of the find 30 kilometres off Cape Santa Maria.

Spain immediately claimed the treasure and eventually the United States Courts agreed. Even the court cases had moments of skulduggery. At one point Odyssey claimed the United States State Department were helping Spain in their claim in exchange for the return of allegedly stolen art work to a private citizen. The State Department refused to comment.

A gold escudo dated 1796

A gold escudo dated 1796

In 2015 a U.S. district court ordered Odyssey to pay Spain $1 million for "bad faith and abusive litigation". The judge observed that, throughout the lawsuit, "Odyssey knew at all times that Spain, given the information pertinent to identification, possessed the historical information and the expertise to identify immediately whether the wreck in question was a Spanish vessel" and that "the fact that Odyssey never asked for Spain's assistance in identifying the vessel reveals much about Odyssey's motives and objectives."

The treasure is now on display in museums in Spain, primarily the Underwater Archaeological Museum in Cartagena. Meanwhile Spain is conducting further operations at the wreck site to raise more of the cargo and artefacts from the ship.


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