Spanish Win the Fight for the Mercedes – Judge Orders Odyssey to Return $500 Million in Coins

Sinking of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

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.



This entry was posted in Current, History, Lore of the Sea, Ships and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Spanish Win the Fight for the Mercedes – Judge Orders Odyssey to Return $500 Million in Coins

  1. Javier Gutz says:

    Realmente justo. Los ingleses actuaron como siempre : como piratas

  2. Pingback: Update: Odyssey Marine Loses Appeal to Supreme Court Justice | Old Salt Blog – a virtual port of call for all those who love the sea

  3. Reyn Mercer says:

    Justo? The Spanish enslaved native South American indians, cruelly forced them to mine and forfeit their riches under threat of death, lost it in battle, then protested when the treasure was salvaged on the backs of other people’s labour and talent. All this done by threatening unarmed vessels with what apparently passes for the pride of the Spanish “navy” these days.

    If the Spanish had any ingenuity or ethics, they’d have found and recovered the wreck themselves then returned the items to the South Americans they were stolen from. Spain and its people have always shown a disregard for human rights throughout its murderous and thieving history.

    The Obama government is so weak and eager to please the Europeans, it readilly handed over possesion of the salvaged gold and silver to a beggar government and nation of whiny, hypocritical has beens.

    It’s no wonder Spain is an embarrassing shell of what it once was and has never truly represented anything great and never will.

  4. Rick Spilman says:

    While it may be fashionable to blame the Obama administration for everything, it was in fact Federal courts, enforcing well established law, that returned the coins.