Explorer: We won’t sell off Bahamas heritage

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

An underwater explorer has pledged not to sell or “split up” the valuable gems and historical artifacts it is recovering from the wreck of a centuries-old Spanish treasure galleon in Bahamian waters.

Carl Allen, the multi-million owner of Walker’s Cay in the Abacos, in a statement announcing next Monday’s opening of his Bahamas Maritime Museum said he is also purchasing - and returning to this nation - items that have been salvaged from other wrecks and taken out of the country without generating a single cent to benefit Bahamians.

Items recovered to-date, the release from Mr Allen’s Allen Exploration said, include “a major collection owned by a former project’s investor and a rare bronze Spanish navigational astrolabe found off Lucaya Beach”. This revelation comes as the Grand Bahama-based museum prepares to display the results of Allen Exploration’s efforts to-date in salvaging the Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas.

The underwater explorer’s statement also affirmed that it was granted a survey licence by the Bahamian government as far back as 2019, with an excavation licence provided the following year. That has now been renewed by the present Davis administration.

The initial licences were issued with zero transparency by the former Minnis administration, especially given that this move ended a long-standing moratorium on underwater salvage and exploration licences going back at least a decade, and their granting was not confirmed until a Tribune Business investigation just prior to the September 2021 general election.

“Finds are divided between the Government of The Bahamas and Allen Exploration,” the explorer said, without detailing this division or who earns what. “Allen Exploration has proven its commitment to keeping its collection together for the public good by sponsoring the build, opening and running of The Bahamas Maritime Museum. There are no intentions to split up the collection or sell it.”

The treasure hunting proceeds are to be split 75/25 in favour of Mr Allen, as stipulated by the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums (AMMC) Act 2011, and the accompanying regulations. However, Ryan Pinder, the attorney general, told the Senate during his contribution to the Budget debate that planned legal reforms will “reverse” this formula and “rebalance” it in favour of the Government.

Mr Pinder said: “The Government is seeking to update The Bahamas’ legislation relative to underwater cultural heritage by amending the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Act (AMMA) along with amendments to the associated regulations. The proposed amendments specifically relate to licensing requirements, costs, timeframes, geographical areas, and the current government licensing revenue split with respect to salvage licensees.

“Right now, the Government gets 25 percent of the assets that people dive for and dig up. We will reverse that. We will get the majority interest in cultural assets underwater in this country.” Mr Pinder’s remarks could have been interpreted as suggesting that the present 75/25 developer weighted formula will be reversed so that the Government now receives three-quarters of any financial proceeds.

However, the Attorney General subsequently clarified to Tribune Business that the revised split has yet to be determined by the Davis Cabinet. “Cabinet would decide what the actual split will be, but we anticipate that it will be the majority position,” Mr Pinder told this newspaper. “It will be rebalanced in favour of the Government. That goes before the Cabinet. The Cabinet will decide the actual split.”

Allen Exploration, meanwhile, said it has identified another 18 shipwrecks in Bahamian waters during its search for the Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas. It added that there are hundreds, if not thousands, more wrecks scattered across the Little Bahama Bank and elsewhere throughout this nation’s territorial waters.

The exploration outfit added that its team, made up of marine archaeologists, operations directors and local Bahamian divers, has plotted over 8,800 magnetometer targets across a search area for the Spanish galleon measuring around 12 by eight kilometres.

“By mapping each type of find, Allen Exploration is finally reconstructing the mystery of how the ship was wrecked and fell apart,” says project marine archaeologist James Sinclair.

“This isn’t just forensic marine archaeology. We’re also digging into former excavations, working out what previous salvage teams got up to, where and why. So much data has been sadly lost from this ravaged wreck. Allen Exploration’s respectful, science-led approach to the Maravillas is reversing former trends.”

“Exploring the debris field veering away from the Maravillas’ strike point is a mixed feeling,” said Mr Allen. “The sea bottom is barren. The colorful coral that divers remembered from the 1970s is gone, poisoned by ocean acidification and choked by meters of shifting sand. It’s painfully sad.

“Still lying on those dead grey reefs, though, are sparkling finds: Olive jars, the spikes that held the Maravillas together, the odd cannon and anchors. And then there are the lucky strikes. Scatters of emeralds and amethysts mined in Colombia, not registered on the manifest, are tell-tale proof of contraband trafficking.”

One discovery involves an 887-gram gold chain, 176 centimetres long, made up of 80 alternating circular links. They are decorated with four-lobed rosette motifs. There are also the Order of Santiago jewels, a golden pendant with the Cross of Santiago (St James) at its centre, just 3.5 centimetres long, and designed in the form of a scallop shell.

A second golden pendant is oval in shape and 4.7 centimetres long. At its centre is a gold Cross of St James, which overlies a large green oval Colombian emerald. The outer edge is framed by 12 more square emeralds, perhaps symbolising the 12 apostles. A 5.3-centimetre majestic oval gold locket with an elaborate cross of St James, framed by swirling foliage incised on the back, has also been recovered.

“When we brought up the oval emerald and gold pendant, my breath caught in my throat,” said Mr Allen. “I feel a greater connection with every day finds than coins and jewels, but these Santiago finds bridge both worlds. The pendant mesmerises me when I hold it and think about its history. How these tiny pendants survived in these harsh waters, and how we managed to find them, is the miracle of the Maravillas.”

“For a nation built from the ocean, it’s astonishing how little is understood about The Bahamas’ maritime links,” said Dr Michael Pateman, director of The Bahamas Maritime Museum. “Few know that the indigenous Lucayan peoples, for instance, settled here 1,300 years ago.

“Or that the whole population, up to 50,000 people, was forced out by Spanish guns, made to dive for pearls off Venezuela, and killed off in less than three decades. There was a dazzling old world culture in The Bahamas long before European ships thought they found a new world. The Lucayans, the slave trade, pirates and the Maravillas are core stories we’re sharing in the museum.”

The Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas was transporting gold, silver and other riches plundered from Spain’s Latin American colonies back to the homeland when it sank on January 4, 1656, near Little Bahama Bank off Grand Bahama after being rammed by one of the other vessels in its nine-strong fleet as they sought to avoid shallow water.

The site, said to have been lying under 30 to 50 feet of shifting sand, was eventually located in 1972 by treasure hunter Richard Marx but his exploration efforts were cut short following a falling-out with the then-Bahamian government.

Subsequently, the Washington Post reported in 1986 that a Memphis businessman with an interest in wreck salvaging, Herbert Humphreys, had located the wreck and begun to recover artifacts. The value of its cargo was pegged at $1.6bn by the article, which said several million dollars’ worth of gems - including a 49.5 carat emerald worth $1m - had already been recovered.

Humphreys’ work was said to have had the blessing of the then-Bahamian government, which received 25 percent of the value of whatever was recovered - a sum consistent with current law. It is unclear when his salvaging stopped, and how much may be left for Allen Exploration to uncover.