Sunken treasure brings tidal wave of trouble

Published Jun 13, 2004


By Maura Quatorze and Machado da Graça

Maputo - Once it was pirates who fought over hidden treasure. Now it is Mozambican archaeologists, jurists, government officials and businessmen doing the fighting.

Until recently the treasure in question was lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, in the bay of Ilha de Moçambique, in a Portuguese galleon sunk in the second half of the 16th century.

The galleon was on its way home from China when it sank. It was carrying untold treasures, most of which were looted in the distant past.

But in May 2001 professional treasure-hunting divers decided to take another look and discovered about 1 500 pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain from the Ming dynasty and 12kg of gold nuggets and other gold objects hidden under tons of rock ballast.

Ilha de Moçambique is a small island off the northern province of Nampula. It was the first capital of Mozambique and is now the centre of a controversy between the Mozambican government on the one hand and local archaeologists and a jurist on the other.

The controversy blew up after the famous auction company Christie's auctioned off 125 porcelain pieces and 21 gold artefacts in Amsterdam, on May 19, realising more than €117 000.

The auction catalogue said one of the Ming pieces carried the date 1553. Most of the other pieces were a bit newer - probably made during the rule of the late Ming Emperor Wanli from 1573 to 1619.

Though the name of the galleon is unknown, it has been dubbed the Fort San Sebastian wreck after the Portuguese fort on the island near where it sank.

Some Mozambican archaeologists and jurists are unhappy with the way their government allowed part of what they regard as the country's cultural heritage to be lost to foreigners.

A contract signed in 1999 between the state, the Mozambican company Patrimonio Internacional (80 percent of which is state-owned and 20 percent privately owned) and the Portuguese company Arqueonautas Worldwide, gives Arqueonautas the concession to survey, evaluate and recover maritime archaeological sites around the island.

It says 50 percent of all the archaeological objects found in the galleon belong to Arqueonautas. Of the other half, the Mozambican government has the right to take the best pieces, those best-preserved, and the rarest and most valuable ones - historically, archaeologically and financially. The rest goes to Patrimonio Internacional.

Patrimonio is supposed to invest its income from these artefacts in further archaeological investigation, and in creating a centre at Ilha de Moçambique to provide training in archaeology to Mozambicans.

But Ricardo Teixeira Duarte, a Mozambican archaeologist, and Carlos Serra, a jurist, dispute the legality of this contract.

They insist that the third article of the Mozambican law on the protection of cultural patrimony (law 10/88) stipulates that "archaeological elements are immovable possessions".

Furthermore, the seventh article of the law states that "all archaeological monuments and elements... are, with immediate effect, declared classified goods of the cultural patrimony".

And the law is clear that all archaeological objects are considered inalienable state property.

"It's a shame that the pieces found in Ilha de Moçambique are now in the hands of half-a-dozen capitalist dilettantes", says Duarte, referring to those who bought the treasures at the Amsterdam auction.

And Serra says the project's contract is "an illegal document and should be analysed by the administrative court".

Serra, a specialist on the subject, draws attention to the 15th article of law 10/88, which says that "the exportation of classified goods of the cultural patrimony is prohibited" unless it is destined to serve cultural, educational or some other public purpose.

He says "every Mozambican citizen is being harmed in the project because we have lost a part of our own cultural patrimony".

However, the National Direction of Culture and the directors of Patrimonio Internacional insist that the contract is legal, and that all the porcelain objects and gold nuggets conceded o Arqueonautas were considered unclassified under law 10/88.

Jacinto Veloso, Patrimonio Internacional's president, declined to comment.

Though Christie's has not been asked to comment on the controversy, it noted in a press release announcing the auction, that the removal of the artefacts from the wreck "ran virtually non-stop for over two years to allow for the painstaking scientific recording of this significant find.

"As initially agreed with the government of the Republic of Mozambique, the nation has retained all the 'unique' Ming and gold artefacts and all those of special archaeological or art-historical importance, as well as the best representative selection of everything else (this was chosen by an independent, government-appointed, internationally renown porcelain expert).

So the treasure that lay buried under the Indian Ocean for more than four centuries has surfaced with a splash and promises to make more waves in the future.

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