Whose treasure is it anyway?

Transpose this situation to the Southeast Asian context: could Portugal lay claim to the, say, Flor del Mar, a 16th-century ship which sunk off the coast of Sumatra? Indonesia has de facto claim to the wreck because it lies in its waters, and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage would rule that Indonesia has “exclusive right to regulate and authorize activities directed at underwater cultural heritage in their internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea”. Incidentally, Indonesia is not signatory to the convention.

The International Herald Tribune ran a commentary last week about the issues surrounding the ownership of deep-sea treasure (Cultural heritage: Whose deep sea treasure is it really? and I’ve appended the text at the end of the post.) The issue revolves around the salvage of the Spanish ship Nuestra Senora, sunk of the coast of Portugal. It was salvaged by an American company, but Spain is also contesting ownership of the galleon (incidentally holding a load of gold and silver). The article moots Peru as another possible claimant to the treasure: after all, “The Inca didn’t freely give gold and silver to the Spanish invaders. Spain took it by force”.

Transpose this situation to the Southeast Asian context: could Portugal lay claim to the, say, Flor del Mar, a 16th-century ship which sunk off the coast of Sumatra? Indonesia has de facto claim to the wreck because it lies in its waters, and the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage would rule that Indonesia has “exclusive right to regulate and authorize activities directed at underwater cultural heritage in their internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea”. Incidentally, Indonesia is not signatory to the convention.



There could be a strong moral claim for Portugal to claim the Flor del Mar, even if it probably won’t happen – but go further back in time and we have more problems. Take for example the Belitung Shipwreck, also found in Indonesian waters, laden with cargo from the Tang dynasty (c. 9th century). In this case, the proverbial waters are muddied because from the ship’s construction it is difficult to tell what kind of ship it was – although we know it was definitely not Chinese, and the construction method used in the ship hints to a more Arab style of construction. So, would any Arab country like to lay claim to it?

And what about China? After all, the ship was laden with trade ceramics meant for the Arab market, but also contains a number of fine ceramics and gold pieces which would suggested they would have been tributary in nature. Since they did not reach their intended port and markets, should they cargo be returned to China if they staked a claim?

Considering that the concept of the nation-state is a relatively recent invention, claims to shipwrecks based on their location in “territorial” waters rather insufficient, especially since some of these shipwrecks predate the nation-state. Much of modern Southeast Asia’s boundaries, in fact, are a product of European colonisation and thus seems inadequate as a basis to lay claim to ancient shipwrecks.

The Belitung Shipwreck and its cargo was bought by Singapore’s Sentosa Corporation with plans to exhibit to collection as part of a maritime museum.

Cultural heritage: Whose deep sea treasure is it really?

The United Nations 2001 convention on protecting underwater cultural heritage was right to oppose the plundering of sunken archaeological treasures for profit. Unfortunately, only 15 countries have ratified the agreement, and the plundering has begun.

In what may become the biggest underwater find ever, Odyssey Marine Explorations, a commercial operation from Tampa, Florida, has reportedly hauled 17 tons of gold and silver from a ship widely believed to be the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes that was sunk by a British warship off the coast of Portugal in October 1804.

The company claims ownership of its find. And, of course, Spain is hiring lawyers and preparing its legal claim to the trove, claiming a sovereign nation’s right over its cultural heritage.

It’s clearly going to be a protracted legal battle, but we think it would only be right to let another set of plaintiffs stake their claim to the treasure, too: Spain’s former colonies in Latin America, where the loot was looted in the first place.

The hoard of gold and silver coins that sunk with the Mercedes was probably minted in Peru – from where the galleon set sail for Cadiz, via Montevideo, in March of 1804.

Though a potential Peruvian claim to the treasure would rest on tenuous legal grounds – Peru wasn’t even an independent country in 1804, but part of the Spanish empire – it certainly could make a sound case based on moral considerations: The Inca didn’t freely give gold and silver to the Spanish invaders. Spain took it by force.

The moment seems ripe to reclaim long lost treasure. After stonewalling Italian officials for years, the Getty, the Met and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts have all agreed to return looted antiquities to Italy. Peru is negotiating with Yale to recover thousands of pieces taken by Hiram Bingham III from Machu Picchu in 1912 for a “loan” to the Peabody museum.

Two years ago, Italy returned to Ethiopia the 1,700-year-old Axum obelisk, taken to Rome in 1937 on the orders of Benito Mussolini. And it has promised to return a second-century Roman statue of Venus to Libya, where Italian troops stole it in 1913.

Admittedly, these cases of theft are much more recent, not on the appalling scale of the Spanish crown’s conquest and plunder of Latin American treasure hundreds of years ago.

But if Greece can insist on the ownership of the Elgin Marbles, which Lord Elgin took from the Parthenon to ship to the British Museum in 1801 Рwhen Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire РPeru surely has a shot at the gold of Nuestra Se̱ora de las Mercedes.

The fate of the recovered treasure is likely to be defined now in a federal court in Tampa, where Odyssey quietly stashed the hoard before announcing its find. When the lawyers from Odyssey face off with those representing Spain, perhaps Peru’s lawyers should come, too.


Related Books about Southeast Asian shipwrecks:
Lost at Sea: The Strange Route of the Lena Shoal Junk
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

One thought on “Whose treasure is it anyway?”

  1. This is actually a very interesting subject with no truth laying at the end of the rainbow. The case of the Mercedes galleon is very peculiar because we are talking about a military vessel, not a private cargo ship. There is an agreement between governments promoted by the US (The Sunken Military Craft Act, signed by G.W. Bush) that recognizes the sovereignty of a nation over its sunken military vessels and aircraft independently of where they can be found in the world.

    Spain is a very old country and can easily make a claim over the vessel. However, Spain has never laid claims on vessels that are neither in international waters nor in other countries’ sovereign waters. In fact, when the Galleon San Diego was found in the Philippines, Spain funded the excavations and purchased part of the cargo. The problem here is that the Odyssey company has lied to the Spanish government, used legal subterfuge to protect itself and used the Spanish-claimed British colony of Gibraltar to smuggle the artifacts to Florida, where they are now.

    So far, whenever a galleon has been found in countries in Latin America, Spain has never acted against the local government’s decision. If Peru should claim part of the cargo, I am sure Spain would agree to some sort of shared ownership as a sign of respect and understanding of our common heritage. Portugal has an even richer program on maritime archaeology, and what they do is assist the local government in the excavation of Portuguese wrecks (examples can be found in Namibia).

    Cargo wrecks are surely difficult to deal with, the ideal would be a coordinated effort among nations to protect the wrecks, but in many occasions, when a VOC wreck is found in Indonesia, little is done to protect it since it’s associated with their colonial past (who can blame them!).

    If we are materialistic, who will benefit with the sale of gold coins from the Mercedes? Only US-citizens, even when the gold was extracted from the Americas and their people would have a better use for it. Who would benefit from the Belitung Shipwreck sales? Not the Indonesian population, just a US-based company that has depleted Indonesia’s source of income (tourism, museum exploitation). Imagine what a country like Malaysia could earn with a huge interactive museum of the “maritime silk road”, full of material that shows how crucial is its role from the past to nowadays! It could leave in the country an average of $250 per tourists, like the Vaasa museum in Sweden! It’s better to milk a cow than to sell it!!!

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