France has filed a legal claim to an ancient shipwreck discovered off Cape Canaveral, saying it was part of the French fleet that in 1565 went to the aid of that country’s doomed colony at Fort Caroline in Jacksonville.
That follows a claim by the private treasure salvage company that found the wreck, and seems likely to lead to a dispute in U.S. District Court in Orlando over ownership of the artifacts.
It would be a high-stakes battle: A state archaeology report says the wreck, if it is indeed connected to the French fleet, “would be of immense archaeological significance.”
The wreckage includes at least one particularly spectacular artifact — a granite monument adorned with a symbol of France’s coat of arms, the fleur-de-lis. It’s similar to the one, never discovered, that French Capt. Jean Ribault left at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 to stake a claim to Florida.
“That’s your crown jewel there, that’s your holy grail,” said Chuck Meide, a marine archaeologist who led a 2014 expedition that searched for, but did not find, the lost fleet. “I never would have dreamed this.”
That marker’s not likely to be the one left at Jacksonville, however, said Meide. Evidence though shows Ribault’s 1565 fleet carried several other stone markers to be used in its exploration of the New World, he said.
Meide, director of the maritime archaeological program at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, is among those who believe the wreck is that of the Trinité, Ribault’s flagship, which played a fateful role in the early history of the New World.
Ribault’s fleet of four ships left France to support the small, struggling French Protestant colony at Fort Caroline. The Spanish came at about the same time, with orders to wipe out the French outpost in land that Spain claimed for itself.
Ribault sailed to attack the new Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, but his ships were driven south in a hurricane, leaving Fort Caroline virtually undefended. During the storm, the Spanish marched north and took over the French colony, seizing firm control of Florida for the next couple centuries.
The location of the French ships, wrecked in the storm, remained a mystery for centuries.
The Republic of France last week filed legal claim to the shipwreck in the Orlando court, saying that under the U.S. Sunken Military Craft Act, ships that sailed for France still belong to France. That’s so even if more than four centuries have passed, said James A. Goold, the attorney representing France. He’s worked with several countries in numerous high-profile disputes with underwater treasure seekers.
“Admiralty law and international law is very clear that the owner of a ship does not lose its ownership just because the ship sank,” Goold said Tuesday.
The head of the private salvage company that found the wreck was defiant in an interview Tuesday, saying the state reached out to France and is working to keep his company from what is rightfully theirs.
“We are going to fight them all the way,”said Robert Pritchett of Tampa-based Global Marine Exploration Inc.
Evidence, he said, is on his company’s side. “France says it’s their military ship. We say prove it. You can’t prove it,” Pritchett said.
Earlier this year, Pritchett said he first thought the wreck, found in September 2015, was indeed part of Ribault’s fleet. There was the granite monument, for one thing, and three French bronze cannons from that period among 19 cannons found there.
But he said he eventually decided that the wreck must have been from a Spanish or possibly English merchant vessel, perhaps more than one. Evidence, including anchors that suggested they were from a ship far bigger than Ribault’s, shows that, Pritchett claimed.
So why were the French artifacts on board? He said he believes the ship or ships were carrying items from the conquered French fort to the Spanish outpost in Cuba.
The distinction is crucial: If the wreck is of a merchant vessel, Global Maritime Exploration, which had a state permit to look for wrecks, would be entitled to 80 percent of what is found. The state would get 20 percent.
If it is determined to be part the royal French fleet, however, France could be granted ownership of it.
That would make it likely that the artifacts, once salvaged, would be displayed in public in Florida, said Meide.
He worked on a French wreck off the coast of Texas that was claimed by France, which then allowed the artifacts to remain in that state, where they are now prized exhibits in several museums.
“The law seems to be on the side of France, which means it’s on the side of the people of Florida,” Meide said.
The outcome of the coming court case will be of the utmost significance, he said. “This is the oldest French shipwreck in the entire New World, from the tip of South America to Canada. This is the first time you had Europeans seeking religious freedom in the New World. This is the American story. This is the birth of Florida … it’s the origin story.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082