In February of 1941, the SS Gairsoppa, a British steamer, was returning from a voyage to India. It left its convoy to sail for the Bay of Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, according to author C. Michael Hogan. Unarmed and unescorted, the Gairsoppa was fired upon by the German U-101 boat commanded by Korvettenkapitän Ernst Mengersen, now known for sinking over 67,000 tons of Allied shipping during the War.
The last reported position of the Gairsoppa was slightly to the west of the Celtic Sea shelf, southwest of the Irish coast. Last month the shipwreck was found by Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Tampa, Florida. There were about 240 tons of silver aboard the Gairsoppa, worth $200 million in today’s prices. Contracted by the British government to recover the wreckage, Odyssey will get 80% of the silver’s value.
According to a news report:
In recent years, cash-strapped governments have started looking to lost cargoes as a way to raise money. They do so because the latest generation of robots, lights, cameras, and claws can withstand the deep sea’s crushing pressure and have opened up a new world of shipwreck recovery.
The United Nations estimates that there are about 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floor. There are billions and billions of dollars worth of treasure that have yet to be hauled up.
Odyssey Marine is the company that just found the shipwreck of another British steamer, the SS Mantola. It was sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1917 by a German submarine. The Mantola had been carrying 20 tons of silver. Like the Gairsoppa, the Mantola had been owned by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company.
In 1917, the British Ministry of War Transport paid a War Risk Insurance Claim for £110,000 (in 1917 value). Today we are looking at approximately $18 million, most of which will go to Odyssey.
Private companies like Odyssey put their own money at risk to recover these treasures. But what they do is controversial. They’ve come in for some heavy criticism from archaeological societies and charities, and are accused of “ransacking” these shipwrecks for their own gain while pretending to be engaged in archaeological research.
The case of the famous “Black Swan” discovery back in 2007 illustrates the controversy. Odyssey Marine found the wreck of a ship which sank in the North Atlantic. Which ship and its exact location have been in dispute, though. The company discovered an estimated $500 million worth of silver and gold coins, along with worked gold and other artifacts.
Some say this particular shipwreck may be that of the British merchant ship Merchant Royal, which sank while returning to England in 1641.
The Spanish government filed a claim that the silver and gold came from a Spanish vessel, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a frigate that sank off the coast of Portugal in 1804.
The government of Peru laid claim to the treasure since some of the coins were minted in Lima. (That claim was later dismissed; Peru was a Spanish territory when the coins were minted.)
Descendants of some of the people onboard the different ships have filed claims, as well.
Spain ratified the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, and asserts that these ancient shipwrecks should be protected and placed in museums, not bartered or sold.
In a case that made it to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a lower court ruling was affirmed that the U.S. federal court lacked jurisdiction over property recovered in the Black Swan Project. The court found that the recovery was the sovereign immune shipwreck Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and ordered Odyssey to turn everything over to the Spanish government.
Nothing has to be handed over, though, until all appeals have been exhausted. And you know they will be.
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