Peruvians feel robbed over Spanish treasure
The US courts have given Spain the 17 tons of silver and gold coins that a private company salvaged from the wreck of a colonial-era Spanish sailing ship and Peruvians say they feel robbed.
The treasure's origin is not in dispute.
The metals were mined and the coins minted in the Andes. The Spanish navy frigate that was carrying them to Spain exploded during an attack by British warships in 1804.
Peru argued it should get the precious metal recovered from the Nuestra Senora de Las Mercedes. But its legal case was sunk in large part by a historical fact: This country was, at the time, a Spanish dependency. It didn't gain independence until 1821, the last bastion of Spanish rule in South America.
"It is uncontested that the Mercedes is the property of Spain," a three-judge US appeals court ruled in September.
Many Peruvians, however, feel they are entitled to the booty because of colonial Spain's violent, exploitative legacy.
Countless natives of the Andes were forced to abandon home and family and toil in life-choking conditions extracting ore underground.
"Spain's progenitors were genocidal to our progenitors, the indigenous of Peru, thousands if not millions of whom died in underground mines going after that metal," said Rodolfo Rojas Villanueva, an activist with the eco-cultural movement Patria Verde.
Other Peruvians would be happy to get a share of the 594,000 coins, whose value has been estimated at $500 million, not so much as reparations but because they are Peru's heritage.
Spanish officials flatly reject any Peruvian claim.
Spain's culture minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, received the treasure with considerable fanfare February 27 after the US Supreme Court rejected a bid by Peru to halt the shipment.
Wert said US courts were clear: "The legacy of the Mercedes belongs to Spain."
The coins, mostly silver reals but also gold doubloons, came from ore mined in present-day Peru and Bolivia and likely also Colombia and Chile. It's not clear exactly what portion was minted in Lima, Spain's continental capital after its conquistadors subjugated the Incas.
recovered in 2007
Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, recovered the treasure in 2007 about 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of the Strait of Gibraltar and placed it in the custody of US courts, which declared the find exempt from their jurisdiction and ordered it turned over to Spain.
Peru and Odyssey have appeals before the US Supreme Court seeking to overturn those rulings.
Peru's government says the coins are the country's patrimony.
"There existed an entity, a country that had not yet become independent but was a territory that later converted itself into an independent country, that is called Peru," said José Antonio Garcia Belaunde, foreign minister in the 2006-2011 government of President Alan Garcia. "The money belonged to that territory."
Peru's ambassador in Washington, Harold Forsyth, put it less abstractly.
"The ship departed from the port of Callao (adjacent to Lima) with a cargo of coins minted in Peru, extracted from Peruvian mines with arms and sweat of Peruvians," he said.
Peru has fought previously for archaeological artefacts lost to the developed world. Under Garcia, it successfully campaigned to persuade Yale University to agree to return hundreds of items taken from the famed Inca citadel of Machu Picchu a century ago by the US explorer Hiram Bingham.
In the case of Las Mercedes, it is not just Odyssey and Peru laying claim to the doubloons and reals.
Others include descendants of the ship's captain, Diego de Alvear Ponce de Leon, and of merchants who Odyssey says collectively owned three-quarters of the coins. Those merchants paid Spain a one per cent conveyance tax.
"In essence, this is an expropriation," said Rafael Fernandez de Lavalle, a Colombian who claims about 800 silver coins and a small chest from Las Mercedes. "It is really upsetting that they can rob you in such a brazen manner."
He is descended from one of the merchants, a Peruvian-born count, José Antonio de Lavalle y Cortes, who exported cacao to Spain, and belongs to a group of 17 mostly Peruvian families who have also appealed to the US Supreme Court.
message of fraternity
Spanish historians generally defend their country's right to the coins. But some think the nations of origin should be able to display some of it.
"It would be very good to send a part, if only as a loan, as a message of fraternity," said Marina Alfonso, a historian at UNED University in Seville.
Wert, Spain's culture minister, said his nation has not ruled out allowing some of the coins to go on display in Latin America, but stresses it would only be on loan.
Alfonso said most of the recovered silver almost certainly came from Potosi, part of present-day Bolivia and once the world's richest silver lode.
Bolivia's culture minister, Pablo Groux, said numismatic experts have determined the coins were minted in four places: Lima; Popayan, Colombia; Santiago, Chile; and Potosi.
He said his country has formally requested a share of the treasure but decided not to litigate, considering its case weak.
"We think the strategy should be diplomatic," he said.
In this undated photo made available by Spain's Culture Ministry, a member of the ministry technical crew displays some of the 594,000 coins and other artefacts found in the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic while sailing back from South America in 1804, in a warehouse in Tampa, Fla. A 17-ton trove of silver coins recovered from the Spanish galleon was set to be flown Friday, February 24, 2012 from the United States to Spain, concluding a nearly five-year legal struggle with Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Florida deep-sea explorers who found and recovered it.
A member of Spain's Culture Ministry's technical crew works with one of the 594,000 coins found, along with other artefacts, in the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish galleon sunk by British warships in the Atlantic while sailing back from South America in 1804, in a warehouse in Tampa, Fla. A 17-ton trove of silver coins recovered from the Spanish galleon was set to be flown Friday, February 24, 2012 from the United States to Spain, concluding a nearly five-year legal struggle with Odyssey Marine Exploration, the Florida deep-sea explorers who found and recovered it.- AP photos's