Monday, February 06, 2006


World’s biggest sunken treasure sparks international row


Khaleej Times
February 05, 2006

MADRID - On February 19, 1694, British warship HMS Sussex was in the Strait of Gibraltar on a voyage to Italy, where it intended to buy the loyalty of the Duke of Savoy in Britain’s ongoing war against France’s Sun King Louis XIV.

The 50-metre ship got caught in a violent storm, and captain Francis Wheeler was unable to save it. The Sussex sank with 500 men, 80 canons and an estimated nine tons of gold coins on board.

More than three centuries later, an international dispute has erupted over what is believed to be the world’s biggest sunken treasure.

Spain has ordered the suspension of a deep-water exploration of what could be the wreck of the Sussex, carried out by a US company in collaboration with the British government.

Spain claims Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration has not respected the conditions set by Madrid, while archaeologists have expressed concern that Britain’s unprecedented deal with a commercial company could pave the way for the worldwide scavenging of shipwrecks.

About three million wrecks are estimated to litter seas and oceans, ranging from 2,000-year-old Roman galleys in the Mediterranean to Spanish ships in the Americas.

Odyssey Marine Exploration has conducted four offshore search and survey operations on the Sussex project since 1998.

The company identified a wreck whose size, location and cannon distribution appear to coincide with those of the British ship.

If the wreck is the right one, it could carry a gold and silver treasure worth up to 4 billion euros (5 billion dollars).

Odyssey has earlier located thousands of wrecks and found two treasures, including one worth 75 million dollars off the US coast, company spokesman John McNeilly told DPA in a telephone interview from Florida.

The suspected wreck of the Sussex lies at a depth of at least 700 metres in the stormy Strait of Gibraltar, but Odyssey is confident in its ability to retrieve whatever is on board with the help of underwater cameras and robots.

Violation of UN principles
Britain’s deal with Odyssey would allow the company to keep a part of the treasure or the equivalent in modern currency, if it is found.

The project could pioneer the recovery of shipwrecks through alliances between governments and private companies, but British experts have warned that archaeology is not compatible with commercial interests.

“We are very unhappy with this project,” Council for British Archaeology director Mike Heyworth told the Spanish daily El Pais.

Critics say the exploration violates the United Nations principles on underwater cultural heritage, which stipulate that it should not be commercially exploited.

The Spanish environmentalist group Ecologistas en Accion believes Odyssey may already have started removing objects from the Sussex.

“They may have taken some things,” spokeswoman Victoria Pereira told DPA, a claim McNeilly denied.

“We have only picked up some pieces of wood to determine the age of the vessel,” he said.

“We are not treasure hunters,” McNeilly stressed. “We apply the highest standards of archaeological excavation.”

Because governments do not have the resources to salvage underwater shipwrecks, “items (on such wrecks) would remain untouched in the bottom of the sea” without help from private companies, McNeilly says.

Under international law, Britain still owns the Sussex, which once sailed under its banner. But Spain says the exploration carried out by Odyssey must respect Spanish norms, because Madrid understands the wreck to be in Spanish territorial waters.

The exploration had only been going on for a month when the Spanish government ordered Odyssey to suspend it, saying the company had not respected conditions such as the previous identification of the wreck and having a Spanish observer watch its work.

The Andalusian regional government had previously declined to appoint such an observer, claiming Odyssey did not respect regional legislation governing Andalusian waters.

“Andalusia does not even have territorial waters,” Odyssey’s lawyer Jose Luis Goni said, but the Spanish government disagrees.

Spanish police have also sued Odyssey for disobedience after its vessel did not obey a radioed order to stop working. McNeilly says the company still does not know on which charges the order was based.

The US company rejects the accusations against it and is resubmitting a project plan to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The US State Department and British Foreign Ministry are taking an interest in how the situation develops, McNeilly said.

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