The Mercedes and the Discovery

by John Bascombe on Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Mercedes Spanisch Naval Frigate

Although they sound like two cars, in reality these are something quite different. The Mercedes, really Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (Our Lady of Mercy) was a Spanish naval frigate transporting goods and money between the New World and Spain. In 1804, within eye shot of the coast of Spain, this ship was sunk during the battle of Cape Santa Maria.

When the Mercedes went down, it took with it 249 sailors, 36 canons, cloth made from vicuña, quinine and 500,000 gold and silver coins. This battle occurred in time of peace between the UK and Spain and was the result of a decision made by the commander of the British ships, Commodore Graham Moore. What no one knew at the time is that Spain was paying France a secret fee of 72 million Francs annually until war was declared by the Spanish on the English.

With orders to stop the four ships from reaching their destination Moore would try to take over the ships and lead them to a British-friendly port. Of course, to do this he would need the Spanish to surrender to an English convoy that they weren't even at war with. Needless to say, the Spanish refused to surrender and a Mexican standoffish scene—4 frigates from each navy facing each other down from a "pistol-shot's distance"—ensued.

In the blink of an eye canons began to go off on both sides and the Mercedes' magazine was penetrated and exploded from within. Along with that, the English debilitated the other 3 Spanish frigates and achieved their objective of capturing the bounty brought back from the New World. This would also launch a war and become the precursor to the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Odyssey Explorer

Fast forward to 2007. The Odyssey Explorer is a salvage and recovery ship that pertains to treasure hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration. That year, Odyssey Marine announced that their ship had recovered $500 million worth of silver and gold coins from an undisclosed shipwreck somewhere off the coast of Spain. Prior to this announcement and privy to what was happening off their coast, Spain was closely observing the work the ship was carrying out.

The work of  the Odyssey Explorer had been carried out in such an opaque manner that it was not clear the precedence of the treasure. In different moments it was stated to be from an unnamed shipwreck, it was also said that it originated from another sunken ship, the Merchant Royal. What is clear is that Odyssey Marine never explicitly stated where the coins came from. After recovering the coins, they were unloaded in Gibraltar and sent immediately to the United States where the company filed to legally take possession of them.

The Spanish government, believing that the treasure uncovered by the Discovery Explorer had in fact come from the Mercedes, launched a salvo of legal proceedings in attempt to recover what they believed was rightfully theirs. After the courts found in favor of Spain, Discovery Marine appealed to the United States Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to save their loot. Unfortunately, for Discovery, the court refused to admit their appeal. The lower court ruling stood which stated that since the Mercedes was a Spanish naval vessel, the wreck and cargo were found to be covered by sovereign immunity. This meant that Odyssey Marine had to return 17 tons of coins and other plundered material back to the Spanish government. Since its return, the government has given the treasure to various museums in Spain.

Today, some of that treasure the Mercedes carried is now on display in the newly renovated National Archeology Museum in Madrid. This museum, considered one the best of its kind thanks to its pre-Columbian collection, will hold this fascinating collection of recovered treasure until the end of November. There is also a joint exhibit in the Naval Museum, also in Madrid, where the exhibit is focused more on the construction of the Mercedes, archives and its historical-military context. Admission to both museums is free.

Keywords: odyssey marine exploration,odyssey explorer,graham moore,museums in spain,shipwreck spain,the mercedes


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