Finders keepers

October 5th, 2011

Last week, there was a small newspaper report about the discovery of the wreckage of a British cargo ship which had sunk in icy waters in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. The ship, S S Gairsoppa, was on its way from Calcutta to England in 1941 when it was torpedoed. It sank in 20 minutes flat. And with it sank the 240 tonnes of silver estimated to be worth £155million now. For the last 70 years, the ship has been sitting 4,700 metres below the sea some 300 miles from Ireland. US-based salvage firm Odyssey Marine Exploration, which discovered the ship, will keep 80 per cent of the find when it retrieves the treasure. That’s its contract with the UK government which it says is “desperately looking for new sources of income” and has asked it to find more such British wrecks.

It’s fascinating to think that a government would resort to treasure hunts to boost its economy. But then who minds a little bit of treasure, especially if it’s just lying around waiting to be discovered. A lot of companies in the world have been dedicating their time and resources to such treasure hunts. According to UNESCO, over three million shipwrecks are scattered across the ocean bed. While not all of these doomed ships carried precious cargo, there are plenty that did. Hundreds of these ships, if found, could reveal the history of the time they belonged to; they could give an insight into the trade during that period and a sense of the explorations and the wars carried out over centuries. Several marine salvage firms like Odyssey which specifically go after prized ships are armed not just with technicians but also have on board teams of archaeologists, researchers and scientists. The chain of events that their finds sometimes trigger is quite interesting to sit back and watch.

In 2007, an ownership dispute erupted over a ship which Odyssey found in the Atlantic Ocean and codenamed ‘The Black Swan’. The firm retrieved its treasure of 500,000 silver coins (weighing 17 tonnes), hundreds of gold coins and several other artifacts – the largest ever collection of coins salvaged from an ocean site. The valuables were taken to the United States and have since been kept in an undisclosed location. It wasn’t long before Spain filed claims to the treasure and accused the company of stripping the gravesite of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish vessel which had gone down in 1804. A back and forth has since been going on in court. While Odyssey says it will continue to “vigorously defend” its right to what it has legally recovered and that the coins will remain in its custody during the appeals process, Spain argues that it considers the site an underwater cemetery which contains the human remains of its sailors. With that it has wonderfully countered Odyssey’s argument that Spain hadn’t bothered about the shipwreck site until now but has suddenly woken up to stake claim after the treasure has been retrieved. It practically called the firm a grave digger when its lawyer said, “People have this idea of treasure hunters as glamorous. But if it involves going down to a gravesite and taking someone’s wedding ring, it’s a different kind of thing.”

In the middle of all this, Peru too has filed a claim. Several descendants of sailors who were said to be transporting the treasure have turned up for their share.

Coming back to where we started. S S Gairsoppa, the latest find, was carrying treasures from India to the British Empire. So far, the deal is clear: 80 per cent for Odyssey and 20 per cent for UK. There is one question though: Where did that wealth which is going to be neatly split between the salvager and the one-time empire on which the sun never set come from? India?

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