The Treasures of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

The sinking of the Spanish frigate and the ensuing discovery and recovery of the treasure that went down with the ship opened a rabbit hole into the shipwreck’s artifacts, valuables, and personal effects of the crew. In the following centuries, documents regarding Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. vs Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel would provide more artifacts, albeit modern, as a result of the legal battle between the salvaging company and Spain over the $500 million worth of treasure found at the shipwreck.

Mercedes‘ Warehouses

The contents of the frigate were plentiful. Among the valuables transported in its warehouses were:

  • 972,480 pesos
  • 950,621 in silver paste
  • Triplicate box of gold and silver coins minted in the Real House of the Currency of Lima in 1803
  • 403 bars of copper and 1,964 of tin
  • Two bronze cannons
  • Medicinal products of the time, such as quinine plant extracts, which were used as medicines against various diseases such as malaria, and ratania plant extracts, whose high tannin content make them a strong antiseptic
  • Vicuña wool
  • Various animal skins including chinchilla, guanaco, skunk, tiger, leopard, lion, and sea lion
  • One cutlery set consisting of two ladles, a chocolate handle, a candelabrum, and 12 teaspoons of worked silver
  • One golden yew
  • One drawer lined with leather containing several objects, one of them being a gold mallet

The Laws in Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel

Upon discovering the shipwreck, Odyssey, Inc. sought ownership of the items it found. Thus, a two-year-long battle over the treasures emerged, securing its name as another phenomenon in maritime culture. The 11th US District of Appeals ruled that the shipwreck was entitled to sovereign immunity, and therefore Odyssey could not lay claim to the treasures. The case found that Odyssey’s bad faith1 and cynical deployment2 of the truth were reason enough to deny the salvaging company the $500 million worth of treasure. Pertaining to maritime culture, several maritime laws were referenced in the case, some of which are displayed and discussed below.

The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987

The Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 applies to abandoned shipwrecks laying in the seabed of a state, in coralline formations protected by a state, or on the seabed of a state when the wreck is included in the National Register3. This act was cited by the court to demonstrate that the cargo of the ship could not be separated from the ship. Essentially, the cargo was a part of the ship. To allow Odyssey the right to claim Mercedes’ treasure would be an encroachment on the private property of the ship.

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) protects foreign governments and their companies from federal court jurisdiction, granting them immunity from cases brought against them. Applying this to the case, it can be seen that Odyssey sought a warrant of arrest while Spain filed a motion to dismiss this warrant. However, under the FSIA, the ship was immune from judicial arrest. Thus, Mercedes’ was entitled to sovereign immunity The district court vacated the in rem arrest and ordered the company to return the in rem to Spain. The cargo of the vessel was consequently ordered back to Spain.

Sunken Military Craft Act

This law enforces the protection4 of all sunken US military aircraft and ships as well as sunken foreign vessels that are within US waters. These waters consist of internal waters, territorial sea, and the contiguous zone (up to 24 nautical miles off the US coast). Taking a deeper look into the application of this act, it may seem bizarre to have used it. However, by the 1902 Treaty of Friendship with Spain, the US must apply its laws and policies to Spanish sovereign wrecks. Therefore, the Court looked to the Sunken Military Craft Act for guidance in its decision.

1902 Treaty of Friendship

Per the provisions of the Treaty of Friendship signed in 1902, it is expected that Spanish sovereign wrecks are treated in accordance with the laws and policies of the U.S., with the same degree of attention as well as considerations that the U.S. would extend to its own vessels. As such, this act ensured that each law above was applied to the wreck of the Mercedes‘, ensuring the ship and the ship’s treasures to Spain.

Physical Artifacts

Not be forgotten amidst the legal battle over the $500 million silver coins of the Mercedes are the more miscellaneous, underappreciated artifacts. Artifacts lost to the sea are often what teach us the most about these vast, intimidating expanses of water. Maritime history, throughout time, has tended to display the ocean’s sole function as a bridge5. Understandably so, for the waters have allowed humans connections to people, faraway coasts, trade, or resources. Evidence of human activity can be found in the ocean, proving its ability to reflect the cultures and histories of different peoples. Specifically, the artifacts of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes permit modern historians a glimpse into the European scene pre-French Revolution.

A cannon6 (left) and silverware7 (right) were recovered from the wreck of Nuestra Señora de la Mercedes.

Excavation Practices and Technology

Despite the controversy surrounding the Mercedes, the site was labeled as a “best practice” archaeological project by UNESCO in 2019. This was due in large part to the three campaigns on the site of the Mercedes in 2015, 2016, and 2017 specifically that were conducted by the Spanish Navy and Insitute of Oceanography.8 These missions were independent of Odyssey Marine and were praised for their meticulousness and technological prowess. Although they did not yield anywhere near as much raw treasure as Odyssey’s missions, the innovations required to operate with precision at depths up to 1,100 m (3609 ft) represented a benchmark in maritime archaeology as a whole.

Bathymetric image of the site9

One of the primary objectives of the first campaign was to produce a bathymetric analysis of the site, essentially mapping the floor of the ocean. This information allows scientists to measure changing currents, salinity, and other naturally occurring alterations in the terrain around the Mercedes.

The Spanish Oceanographic Institute utilized the OceanGate unmanned ROV LIROPUS vehicle to explore the depths with greater precision. For heavier artifacts such as cannons, the Institute took advantage of new synthetic lightweight ropes to hoist the treasure of the dense clay floor.

These new techniques along with the impressive attention to detail that Spain showed while carrying out these three campaigns yielded the aforementioned forks and other fine metal objects that would otherwise not have been salvageable.

Footnote Citations

  1. Merryday, ODYSSEY MARINE EXPLORATION, INC., Plaintiff v. THE UNIDENTIFIED SHIPWRECKED VESSEL, Defendant., Case No. 8:07-cv-614-T-23MAP, 3.
  2. Merryday, ODYSSEY MARINE EXPLORATION, INC., Plaintiff v. THE UNIDENTIFIED SHIPWRECKED VESSEL, Defendant., Case No. 8:07-cv-614-T-23MAP, 20.
  3. Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. v. Unidentified Shipwrecked Vessel, 657 F.3d 1159 (11th Cir. 2011), 1.
  4. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Sunken Military Craft Act”, 1.
  5. Rozwadowski, “Oceans in Three Paradoxes: Knowing the Blue through the Humanities”, 4.
  6. Olaya, “Spanish archaeologists recover new treasure from famed ‘Mercedes’ shipwreck”, 1.
  7. Olaya, “Spanish archaeologists recover new treasure from famed ‘Mercedes’ shipwreck”, 2.
  8. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, “Proyecto Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.”
  9. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, “Proyecto Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.”