Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

French Win Claim to 1565 Florida Wreck

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on October 25, 2018

Good news today on the historic shipwreck front — the U.S. District Court in Orlando ruled in favor of France in the case of a shipwreck found by a private salvage company, Global Marine Exploration Inc., finding that it was, as France claimed, the 1565 flagship of Jean Ribault, who was heading a resupply mission to Fort Caroline. The salvors claimed that this wasn’t the wreck of Ribault’s ship, and therefore the French had no claim to it, despite the fact that that the wreck carried guns cast with the royal fleur-de-lis (above) and what appears to be a granite column intended to mark the French claim to Florida. I’m not sure anyone was convinced by that argument, but that was Global Marine’s story and they were sticking to it, apparently with a straight face.

This ruling appears to be solid both in law and in effect. U.S. law holds that any national (usually naval) vessel remains property of that nation in perpetuity, through successive government and regimes down through the years. This was the basis for the United States successfully claiming ownership of the Confederate raider Alabama, sunk off Cherbourg in 1864, as well as the French government’s claim of ownership of La Belle (1687), found in 1995 in Matagorda Bay, Texas. (Full disclosure: I am a Marine Archaeological Steward with the Texas Historical Commission, and prior to that was part of the La Belle Project public outreach team in 1995-97. It was the THC that tried to claim La Belle for the State of Texas, and we lost that case.) More recently, the remains of U-576 were located off North Carolina, and the German government immediately asserted its prerogative to restrict disturbance of the site.

It’s also a good decision as a practical matter, because this ruling will prevent the site from being disturbed by salvors who, driven by the need to recoup their costs, will inevitably focus on recovery and conservation of showy or valuable artifacts, while likely doing little or no in-depth site analysis or preservation of other, less-commercially-viable artifacts. In all likelihood, the French will work out an arrangement for a more thorough study and potential excavation of the site, and make some arrangement (as with both the Alabama and La Belle artifacts) for long-term public exhibitions in both countries. It’s a win all around, except maybe for Global Marine’s investors. I can live with that.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to conventional salvage work at all. The salvage laws we have now have developed over centuries, and they serve a real and valuable purpose. They establish a framework for securing abandoned maritime property and often expedite removal of hazardous wrecks in a public waterway. But they weren’t developed to deal with shipwrecks like Ribault’s, that are of immense value historically and culturally, and in fact work against the serious preservation and study of such sites. I’m glad that we have tools that can protect at least some of these wrecks, for the wider education and enjoyment of the general public.

It’s a good day.

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