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Jamaicans Angry Over U.S. Treasure Hunt

May 15, 2004

PORT ROYAL, Jamaica (AP) _ Jamaicans have long suspected the waters off their southern coast are teeming with shipwrecks and sunken treasure from the days when the island was a haven for pirates. But they have always been happy to leave the mystery to the sea.

Now some islanders are angry to learn that their government has not only given an American treasure-salvage company permission to explore the area _ called Pedro Banks _ but also to keep half the bounty. They say all the artifacts _ precious or not _ are part of their history and belong in Jamaica.

``You’re not just dealing with treasure here,″ said Ainsley Henriques, who resigned as director of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, the state agency overseeing the project, to protest the government’s decision.

Admiralty Corp., which launched its expedition this week from Port Royal, a colonial-era pirate town once dubbed the ``wickedest city on earth,″ has promised to conduct a proper archaeological recovery.

``We’re not going to just go down there and tear everything up to get the gold,″ said Clarence Lott, vice president of the Atlanta-based company.

Pedro Banks, roughly the size of Jamaica itself, was a busy but treacherous shipping passage for European vessels headed to the New World between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Archaeologists estimate some 300 ships may have fallen victim to the passage, known to the Spanish as La Vibora _ or The Viper _ for its fang-like reef.

One of those ships was the Genovesa, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1730 with several tons of gold and silver on board. Its cargo is worth an estimated $600 million today.

``It’s really mind-boggling what we might bring up,″ said G. Howard Collingwood, chairman of Admiralty.

Jamaica formally banned offshore treasure hunting in 1991, fearful of being pilfered by modern-day pirates and harming delicate marine habitats.

After intense lobbying, Admiralty persuaded the government in 1998 to reverse the ban and won a license to probe the area.

In addition to half the precious bounty, Jamaica will also receive all non-precious artifacts, including ship fittings, china, and nautical equipment that it intends to display in a maritime museum.

``We know we’re going to benefit,″ said Susanne Lyon, executive director of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, the state agency overseeing the project.

But not everyone is pleased with the plan to dig up the past.

Henriques, a member of the Archaeological Society of Jamaica, said the project should be handled by an accredited archaeological group, not a profit-seeking foreign company.

He said Jamaican officials could learn from their counterparts in Egypt, where the government imposed strict limits on excavation after being pilfered by treasure hunters.

``All archaeology is really looking at is the frozen history of people,″ he said. ``If you just suck it out for the gold, you lose the story. And these stories are important, perhaps more important than the intrinsic value of the treasure itself.″

Other Jamaicans worry the government might be violating a 2001 U.N. convention banning the commercial salvaging of historic shipwrecks.

Lyon said officials will seek to meet international rules on excavation, noting a team of government observers will be working with Admiralty.

But first they have to find the wrecks.

The company, which plans to spend $2.2 million in the first year of operation, says excavation could take five years to complete, and there are no guarantees.

``Until you bring something up it’s all speculation,″ Collingwood said.

To reduce the risk, Admiralty will rely on new technology that uses electromagnetic waves to detect precious metal without the need for large-scale excavation of the banks, among the world’s richest fishing beds.

``It allows us to use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer,″ said Ken Vrana, one of several archaeologists among Admiralty’s crew.

Stealing some shade near Port Royal’s shore, fisherman Vandel Strachan said he supports the project but doubted ordinary Jamaicans will benefit.

``We won’t see any good from that gold with this government in charge,″ said Strachan, 27.

Nearby, 59-year-old fisherman George Moore disagreed.

``It could help others who don’t have anything,″ he said, lounging in a wooden skiff. ``Or it can just stay there and grow moss.″


On the Net:

Admiralty Corp.: http://www.admiraltycorporation.com

Jamaica National Heritage Trust: http://www.jnht.com/

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