Going On The Account: Finders, Kee- Hey Wha’?

Someone flagged for me this story of Spain taking possession of recovered treasure that had gone down with (what the report claimed was) a galleon.

At first I wasn’t sure this dovetailed as well into my interests, as the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes went down in 1804, a little beyond the Golden Age of Piracy.  And the fact that it wasn’t pirates or privateers that brought her down, but the Royal Navy, also at first made me pass it by.

Then I read the account of the Cape Santa Maria Action, and suddenly the sails filled again.  For now we had an act of piracy and  a cursed treasure that makes for an interesting story, maybe not as cinematic as the other one, but still worth a read…

For those wanting a little context, October of 1804 saw the US Navy going up against the Barbary Pirates to the east of the Straits of Gibraltar, while Napoleon was consolidating his hold on Europe with an eye on invading England.   Spain under Charles IV was a power on the way down, still receiving and living off the Treasure Fleet without encouraging the middle class to create capital on its own, still trying to do things the old way without realizing that that party was over.  Which I can sympathize with, having overstayed my welcome at a few affairs over the years…

Because Spain was pressured to align its interests with France’s, which is a nice way of saying it was bullied to death, there was distrust of Spanish intentions by the British, and when word came to London of Spain’s secret payments to Napoleon in order to maintain their neutrality (or if you prefer, “protection money”), the British decided to take action to force the issue.  Which is a description you can apply to a good portion of action during the Napoleonic period; bold audacity with steely resolve and a willingness to “make it up as you go along.”  An approach we get a lot of from Horatio Hornblower, who then begets Captain Kirk and Han Solo…

And so, four British frigates attempt to seize the Treasure Fleet, which no matter how you parse it is an act of piracy.  Yes, it’s a state agency (the Royal Navy) going after treasure, but it is the seizing, not the seizers, that makes the definition, and in this case we really need to render unto seizers what belongeth unto seizers…

OK, over the line; sorry…

Furthermore, Captain Moore’s action against Rear Admiral Bustamante y Guerra comes to force the issue of Spanish neutrality, by denying Spain the means of paying off the French through the sinking of the  Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes  with what is estimated in today’s currency to be worth half a billion dollars.


A treasure that the folks at Odyssey Marine Exploration certainly thought they were entitled to when they recovered her cargo off the coast of Portugal, until the Spanish government (which had gone through a few cycles since Charles IV and the Bourbons were swept away) stepped in to claim it.  And after five years of litigation between Odyssey and Spain, which much like the conditions around the importance of the treasure before it went down was tied to secret government dealings if some WikiLeaks cables are verified, the Spanish finally brought their silver home.

(Well, technically “their” silver, as the article does mention in passing that Peru made an appeal for a claim, as the silver in the treasure was mined from their country by Spanish colonial agents.  The courts, however, apparently decided that historical fairness can only go back so far…)

So in the end,  the treasure aboard the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes  is indeed a tale of high seas action, with greedy raiders firing broadsides to claim a contested treasure.  And much like tales of modern conflicts, there were also plenty of lawyers, guns and money, though not in equal portions at all times…



And for their efforts, the Spanish are claiming that this haul is going to a museum, which seems strange considering their current position…

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