The Mercedes warship was returning from South America when, on October 5, 1804, a day before its arrival in the Spanish city of Cádiz, a British squadron sank it off the coast of Portugal. The vessel was carrying 325 passengers and enough gold and silver coins from tax revenue to build 125 squares like Madrid’s iconic Plaza de Cibeles.
The exhibit will leave its home in Madrid for the first time since it opened two years ago
Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida-based company that salvages deep-ocean shipwrecks, discovered pieces of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes and its cargo in the Atlantic Ocean. But after a four-year legal battle, American courts supported Spain’s claim to the sunken treasure and Odyssey was forced to return the pieces to the Spanish authorities.
“Our shared history is undeniable,” says Susana García Ramírez, a conservator at Madrid’s Naval Museum and the curator of the exhibition where the salvaged material now has its home. “Because of what happened to the Mercedes, Spain no longer had so many ships to send to the Americas and that was the beginning of the independence [movements]. It’s a key moment in history.”
The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City will host a temporary exhibit that chronicles the Mercedes’ 1804 journey from the Viceroyalty of Peru to Europe. The exhibit includes some of the thousands of gold and silver coins found, as well as cannon, portraits of Charles IV of Spain signed by Francisco de Goya, historical documents like the list of the 48 passengers who survived the attack, a flag used in the Battle of Trafalgar and a model of the ship built to scale based on information found in legal documents.
“We do not have to let treasure hunters destroy the remains just to sell whatever they can extract from them,” Susana García says. The show is part of a 2014 agreement between Spain and Mexico to protect this subaquatic heritage.
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The exhibit will leave its home in Madrid for the first time since it opened two years ago. The Mercedes will be on display in Mexico until October 2. It will then return to Europe, unless another American country requests to host it.
Though it has been five years since the Spanish government recovered 17 tons of coins from the Mercedes, its story remains a mystery. Two centuries after it sank, researchers are still trying to figure out what caused the explosion. “It seems like a bullet fell in the ammunition dump and it exploded, but the truth is it’s not easy for that to happen,” García says.
English version by Dyane Jean François.