The Battle of Cape Santa Maria was one of the most controversial naval engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. The attack on a Spanish treasure fleet on October 5, 1804 by a British squadron, without a declaration of war, was considered to be an act of piracy by the Spanish and justified as a “necessity of war” by the British. In addition to the international controversy, there were extended legal arguments over whether prize money was due to the British officers and and crews from the £900,000 (equivalent to £62,923,000 today) in gold and silver captured in the battle.
The Battle of Cape Santa Maria, or perhaps more properly, a battle over the battle, re-erupted in 2007 when Odyssey Marine Exploration secretly salvaged $500m (£308m) worth of gold and silver coins from the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish frigate which blew up and sank during the engagement.
The Spanish government sued Odyssey, demanding a return of the coins. In 2009, a Florida court ruled that the Spanish government was the rightful owner of the treasure. Odyssey appealed the ruling. Late last year, the company lobbied the US government to change the language of a 2004 law called the Sunken Military Craft Act to strengthen their case, but failed. Now, an American circuit court has upheld previous rulings against the company and had directed Odyssey to return the coins to Spain.
The Battle of Cape Santa Maria may not yet be over. Laura Barton, spokesman for Odyssey, says the firm is considering another appeal.
The battle is well know to readers of nautical fiction. In Patrick O’Brian’s novel Post Captain, Stephen Maturin provides the intelligence permitting the interception, and Captain Aubrey, in temporary command of the Lively, captures the Santa Clara and the Fama, two of the treasure ships.
In C. S. Forester’s Hornblower and the Hotspur, Horatio Hornblower is attached to the squadron, but misses out on the captures while fending off a French ship.
In Showell Styles’s Midshipman Quinn and Denise the Spy, Septimus Quinn, also participates in the battle.
Thanks to Ann Brown and Alaric Bond for contributing articles to this post.