Monday, August 27, 2007

Spanish Plunder Anew?

In October 1804 the British sank a heavily armed Spanish treasure trip carrying plunder from the New World to Spain, dumping possibly as many as a million silver dollars into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal.

Recently, private salvagers may have found the treasure of the Spanish ship, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, which today would be worth as much as $500 million. (See "Will Finders Be Keepers of Salvaged Treasure?" in today's Washington Post.) Now the Spanish government, which brutally plundered South America of its gold and silver, claims the treasure--as part of its "cultural heritage" in a lawsuit against the salvage company that found it.

(Spain's attorney in the case is our friend Jim Goold, an attorney at Washington's Covington & Burling, who specializes in treasure cases, an arcane, but certainly vastly more interesting area of the law than most.)

Cultural heritage? Give us a break. Spanish conquistadors stole whatever they could from the natives of South America, murdering thousands, spreading diseases that killed millions more, while exploiting the local resources. (The Spanish were hardly unique in this regard, although their tactics in South America tended to be more brutal than those of some the other European imperialists.)

We'd like to know the true circumstances under which Spanish Rear Admiral Don Jose Bustamente and his officers and crew obtained the treasure they were spiriting off to Spain when the equally avaricious British intercepted them. Did the Spanish enter into a legitimate contract with the locals under which they paid fair compensation for the silver? Or did they muscle in and simply take what they wanted under some interpretation of Spanish law or a charter from the King? We'd bet on the latter.

When confronted with claims of "cultural heritage" we think a court should have the ability to probe beneath the surface. It would be one thing if the sunken ship were carrying artifacts of the Spanish King and Queen (even if made from gold and silver extracted from the New World)--that might legitimately be part of Spain's own cultural heritage. But the mere fact that it was a Spanish ship that was sunk shouldn't be enough for Spain to get its hands on this booty. (Sorry Jim!)

If the facts show that under today's international law the cargo of the sunken Spanish treasure ship would not rightfully belong to Spain, then we see no reason why the salvager should not have just as much a right to the discovery.

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