It was in 2016 that divers from Global Marine Exploration (GME), a private marine salvage outfit, came across some truly exciting – and potentially lucrative – finds off the coast of Florida. They’d discovered the remains of what they believed to be a 16th-century ship. But what the folks at GME didn’t know was that they were about to be plunged into a complex international legal quagmire.
It’s likely that this vessel was either French or Spanish. And it was in the seas off Florida because of the intense conflict that was played out between the two colonial rivals in the 16th century. Florida was in fact the first territory on the U.S. mainland to be visited by Europeans.
The first European we know about who landed on Florida was a Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de León. Seemingly charmed by this new land that he discovered in 1513, he named it La Florida, which is Spanish for land of flowers.
Later in the century, the Spanish went on to establish settlements in Florida. Not all the attempts were fruitful, though. Pensacola, for example, was settled in 1559 but lay deserted just a couple of years later. St. Augustine, on the other hand, proved far more successful. Founded in 1565, today it is the oldest surviving European settlement on the U.S. mainland.
The Spanish weren’t alone in their desire to colonize Florida, however. The French also had their eyes on this new territory, in particular the Huguenots. These people were persecuted because of their Protestant religion in France and saw an opportunity to create safe havens in the New World, including Florida.
One such Huguenot settlement was established by René Goulaine de Laudonnière in 1564 in modern-day Jackson, Florida. It was named Fort Caroline, and its creation came just a year before the Spanish founded Fort Augustine.
The initial 200 French inhabitants of Fort Caroline were reinforced in 1865 by further settlers and several hundred soldiers, after a fleet of four ships led by French explorer Jean Ribault arrived. But just days after Ribault’s appearance, a new Spanish governor, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, also reached Florida. And his orders were to destroy the French fort.
The Spanish and French fleets subsequently entered into a short battle. But the Spanish soon disengaged and, pursued by the French, escaped to land at the site of the future Fort St Augustine. Ribault and his French ships were not so lucky, however. They encountered a powerful storm that sank many of the vessels and grounded the others, with many hands drowned.
Ribault and those of his men who survived the storm were found on land by Menendez and his soldiers, who invited the French to surrender. Obviously having no inkling of what would happen next, Ribault agreed. But what did happen was that Menendez had Ribault and hundreds of his followers slaughtered. And this ended French attempts to establish settlements in Florida.
That was the historical context of the wreck found by the divers and archaeologists of GME in May and June of 2016. And what creates the legal complexities of the discovery is the question of whether it was a French or a Spanish vessel. Another possibility also exists, moreover – that it’s simply impossible to know which flag the ship flew before sinking in the 16th century.
We’ll return to the legal shenanigans presently. But what exactly did GME find? Well, diving in waters just off Florida’s Cape Canaveral, the divers uncovered a scattered array of objects on the seabed. For instance, pictured here is a bronze cannon with a fleur-de-lis mark, which is a symbol of France.
The GME divers also found three highly decorated brass cannons. These weapons, GME boss Robert Pritchett informed Live Science, may be worth in excess of $1 million apiece. They lie in water from 15 to 25 feet deep amid sands that are continually moving. “So the cannons could be covered by 3 feet of sand, or they could be covered by 8 feet of sand. It’s different every time the wind blows,” Pritchett told the Daily Mail.
In addition, they found an impressive monument hewn from marble and sporting the French king’s coat of arms. And this may be one of the earliest artifacts of European origin ever discovered in the New World. It’s said to be very much like the monument that Ribault planted in St. Johns River as a symbol of France’s claim over Florida.
Also among the remains of the wreck, which are scattered over an area that’s 4 miles wide, were 12 anchors and 19 iron cannons. And strewn across the seabed there were pieces of ballast and ammunition, along with a stone grinding wheel.
GME was originally given permits by the authorities in Florida to explore seven areas off the state’s coast. Unsurprisingly, having done the hard work and discovered these items, GME was anxious to go ahead and reap the likely benefits by salvaging the objects.
The French government had other ideas, however. In November 2016 it put forward a claim to the underwater booty, citing the U.S. Sunken Military Craft Act. This stipulates that such wrecks belong to the country that the ships sailed from, even if they are discovered hundreds of years later.
“Admiralty law and international law is very clear that the owner of a ship does not lose its ownership just because the ship sank,” James A. Goold, attorney for the French government, told Jacksonville.com. GME’s Robert Pritchett took a very different view, however. “We are going to fight them all the way,” he said.
The French are nonetheless claiming that they have conclusive evidence that the wreck is the Trinité, the flagship of Ribault’s little fleet. And the authorities in Florida have not only taken the side of the French, but they’re also alleging that GME played fast and loose with the exploration permits that they were granted. GME flatly denies this allegation, however.
Pritchett argues that although there are French items on the wreck, these could simply have been stolen by the Spanish. As a result, he says, the wreck may be Spanish or even an English merchant ship. And that could make a big difference to GME, because if it is a merchant boat then the company would be entitled to 80 percent of the value of the artifacts. In contrast, if the wreck is found to have been part of the French royal fleet, it now belongs lock, stock and barrel to France. The matter will be decided in court.
Reflecting on the importance of the court case, marine archaeologist Chuck Meide told Jacksonville.com, “This is the oldest French shipwreck in the entire New World, from the tip of South America to Canada. This is the first time you had Europeans seeking religious freedom in the New World. This is the American story. This is the birth of Florida … it’s the origin story.”