The wreck of Flor de la Mar, a Portuguese ship thought to contain gold from the sack of Malacca in the 16th century, has reportedly been found off the coast of Semarang in Indonesia. Malaysia has already put a tentative claim on the proceeds from the wreck.
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.