Media reports this month claim that almost four centuries after the ill-fated galleon Nuestra Señora del Juncal (“the Juncal”), a Spanish naval vessel, sank off the Mexican coast in a storm in October 1631, researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and Spain’s National Museum of Underwater Archaeology are to undertake a 10-day search for the wreck in May.
The vessel was reportedly carrying tonnes of New World gold, silver, jewels, cacao, dyes, and animal hides when she sank on a return voyage from Mexico after weathering a fortnight’s storms, in which the crew reportedly cut the main mast and tossed cannons and other weighty objects overboard in a futile attempt to lighten the load. Reports say that the Juncal was in a poor state of repair and taking on water even before the fleet of which she was part set sail. Her prospects were not improved by the death of her commander on the eve of the journey.
It is hoped that the Spanish and Mexican partnership will herald a twenty-year long scientific and cultural collaboration. The announcement comes six years after the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding over their shared cultural heritage. The project has the twin aims of locating and protecting the Juncal but also training the next generation of Latin American underwater archaeologists, in order to leave the seabed “in good hands”.
Dr Ivan Negueruela, director of Spain’s National Museum of Underwater Archaeology reportedly considers the project’s chances very promising. Because the cargo was “so valuable”, he has said, the authorities maintained a detailed inventory. Survivors were questioned in depth, he adds, and as a result he says that the team has “a fairly good idea” where the wreck rests.
Negueruela hails not only the Juncal’s “true riches” but also the vessel itself. He has said that he looks forward to the chance to discover how the ship was constructed “before the treasure hunters” do. He has, however, said that the priority from an archaeological perspective is the security of the site and carrying out a methodical, exhaustive, and transparent excavation. The approach, he has said, is the same for
“two tonnes of silver or a single silver spoon”.
If reports of Juncal’s cargo are correct, the treasure would dwarf the 14 tonnes of cargo recovered from the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes (“the Mercedes”) in 2007. Readers may recall that the Mercedes, a Spanish frigate sunk by a British squadron off Cape St Mary, Portugal in October 1804, was the subject of a hotly fought US court battle over a reported 594,000 gold and silver coins reputedly valued at approximately £308M which ended when a US circuit judge ordered US deep-sea salvage outfit Odyssey Marine Exploration to return the coins to Spain in 2013.
In the litigation concerning the Mercedes the Spanish government had the upper hand because the vessel was a Spanish Royal Naval Frigate and Spain had sovereign immunity for the purposes of the US Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act 1976 and was therefore immune from suit in any US court. The status of the Juncal is not yet clear, nor whether her discovery could make further litigation likely, but it has to be assumed that treasure hunters are watching and waiting.
The compact between Spain and Mexico in this case is a further example of the use of international agreements outside the scope of the UNESCO Convention on the Underwater Cultural Heritage to manage and protect wrecks. I wrote recently about another accord in connection with the wreck of RMS Titanic.
Vessel Nuestra Señora del Juncal sank in October 1631. Of the 300 souls onboard, it is thought that 39 survived. She is thought to have been carrying between 120 and 150 tonnes of precious metals when she perished.
(Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)