[Wreck from July 1666] Pirates of the Channel Islands:
- Pirates of the Channel Islands: A £200m treasure hunt
'La Vierge' was the pride of Louis XIV's merchant navy when it sank in
A private company is trying to reclaim its booty but would this be
of historical vandalism? By Cahal Milmo
Thursday, 12 June 2008
Laden with jewels and treasures plundered from Madagascar, the French
galleon La Vierge du Bon Port was barely a day from home and safety on 9
July 1666, when it was attacked by British privateers off the Channel
Islands. It was a testimony to the value of the French vessel's cargo, and
the greed of its captors, that 36 English sailors drowned while trying to
drag the riches from their sinking prize.
The loss of La Vierge, the pride of the newly-founded French East India
Company, along with two more of the four vessels in its flotilla ended the
ambitions of Louis XIV, the Sun King, to turn Madagascar into one of the
first colonial possessions of France. The ship's booty was valued at £1.5m
at the time and included gold, silver, spices and ambergris, the waxy
discharge from sperm whales that was prized as a base for perfume. In
terms, its value could be as much as £200m.
A report of the arrival in Guernsey of the Orange, the vessel that sank La
Vierge, said: "Here arrived His Majesties Shipp the Orange whoe having ben
in fight with a French ship, which came from the Isle of Madagascar, very
richly laden upon account of the East India Company of Fraunce, her
did consist of cloth of gold, silk, amber grease, gould, pearls, precious
stones, corall, hides wax and other commodities of great value." La Vierge
would enter the ranks of near mythical "El Dorado" wrecks that have
subject of swashbuckling stories and, more recently, attempts by a new
generation of controversial salvage companies to pinpoint their watery
Two weeks ago, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, the Florida-based company
which has become the most high profile and contentious of the hi-tech
"treasure hunters" now plying the world's oceans and archives for evidence
of lucrative wrecks, filed a claim at the District Court in Tampa to two
"cannon wrecks of the Colonial period" lying within the English Channel
between 25 and 40 miles from the British waters. Documents state that
Odyssey "believes that potentially valuable cargo may be located at or
the site", which remains a closely-guarded secret.
When coupled with the knowledge that Odyssey's main wreck-finding vessel,
the Explorer, which is loaded with sophisticated sensors and
remote-controlled submarines, spent four weeks earlier this year
small area to the west of Guernsey, the inevitable question is now being
asked: has Odyssey found La Vierge du Bon Port?
Websites that follow the exploits of treasure-hunting companies were last
week rife with claims that La Vierge is one of the two wrecks. One source
with knowledge of Odyssey's projects said: "La Vierge is the only wreck in
those waters that could possibly be of interest to them. There is a strong
case for believing that they've found her."
With an estimated £73bn of treasure believed to be lying on the floor
Mediterranean alone and deep-sea technology advancing to the point where
thousands of previously unreachable wrecks are now easily explored, the
debate over whether sunken vessels should be declared protected sites or
opened up to companies like Odyssey is taking on increased urgency.
To its supporters, who include among others the British Government, which
has signed a potentially lucrative contract with Odyssey to salvage a 17th
century navy ship called HMS Sussex carrying bullion worth up to
Nasdaq-listed company, founded by a former advertising executive and a
estate magnate, is a reputable organisation that follows strict
archaeological guidelines in its legitimate search for sunken vessels.
But to their detractors, who include leading archaeological bodies and the
Spanish government, the Americans are hiding behind a veneer of historical
probity and are in reality the "new pirates of this century" using
technology to pillage the cultural heritage.
The announcement of the two wrecks was certainly sufficient to excite
Odyssey's investors, who include some of the world's biggest merchant
and private equity companies. Shares in the company, which reported net
losses of £16.8m between 2005 and 2006 and lost £3.4m in the first quarter
of this year, rose by 27 cents to $4.96 (£2.53) following reports of the
In the stormy waters of the modern salvage business, which is every bit as
cut-throat and tempestuous as bygone eras, the company's latest activities
are being closely monitored by interested parties, including several
Under international maritime law, a naval vessel remains the property
sovereign government in perpetuity, meaning that Paris could at the very
least stake a strong claim to ownership of La Vierge, which was owned by a
state monopoly, and everything she was carrying.
Sources said both Paris and London are keeping a close eye on the
claim and expect "the appropriate disclosures" from Odyssey should one of
the wrecks be confirmed as French or British.
In the meantime, the rectitude of pinpointing sunken vessels and raising
their contents in the name of archaeology and profit is the subject of a
fierce tussle between the salvagers, conservationists and governments.
This debate has been crystallised by the dispute over the "Black Swan"
wreck. Last summer, Odyssey announced it had salvaged 500,000 gold and
silver coins, worth anything between £2m and £250m, from an unidentified
location within a 180-mile radius of Gibraltar and flown them out of the
British territory to Florida.
The Spanish government sent navy vessels to track the Odyssey Explorer for
more than a month before forcing it into the port of Algeciras, briefly
detaining the captain and carrying out an extensive search as part of a
potential criminal investigation in the belief that "Black Swan" is in
the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a treasure-laden frigate that was sunk
by the British as it returned from Peru in 1804.
Madrid announced in March that it had obtained categorical proof from
Odyssey's own records of the site and accused the company of raiding a war
grave. Jim Goold, the lawyer who is acting for the Spanish government
US courts, where Madrid is demanding the return of all the bullion, said:
"It is like a foreign company came along and disturbed or took
the Ark Royal [sunk by a German U-boat in 1941] without prior
authorisation. The Mercedes is also a grave site and Odyssey have no
business being there. Everything has to be returned."
In the face of growing confidence from Madrid that its complaint will be
upheld, Odyssey believes it is entitled to a finders' fee equivalent to
nearly all the bullion it has recovered. According to Mr Goold any such
notion is unthinkable and all such entreaties will be rejected out of hand
by Madrid when their case comes to a full trial later this year.
A coalition of professional bodies, including the Council for British
Archaeology and the Society of Antiquaries, is calling on Britain to
Spain and France by signing the Unesco convention on the protection of
underwater cultural heritage, which would effectively ban any recovery of
shipwrecks for commercial purposes. Critics say the refusal of the UK and
the US to sign the convention is laying open the three million wrecks that
lie undiscovered around the world to the work of profiteers.
For its part, Odyssey is adamant it will continue work on at least eight
shipwrecks it has identified around the world.
If proof were needed that the world's fascination with galleons laden with
loot is not going away any time soon, it was provided last week when the
company confirmed it has signed a £1m deal for an 11-part series with the
Discovery Channel. Whether it will include footage of the recovery of the
treasures of La Vierge du Bon Port remains to be seen.