In 2016, a shipwreck was discovered close to Cape Canaveral on the Floridian coast, an area that is better known for its space junk than its colonial shipping vessels. The shipwreck has since been the subject of a lengthy legal battle between the company that found the wreckage and the country to whom it supposedly belonged to in the first place. Now, a decision has been made and the treasure will be coming home – to France.
The wreck is believed to be what is left of a small French fleet on route to Florida, but this has been disputed. Global Marine Enterprises (GME), the Florida-based marine salvage company who located the valuables, claims the artifacts had been stolen from the French colony at Fort Caroline, Florida, by Spanish looters in 1562 before it was discarded by a Spanish vessel bound for Havana, Cuba.
Unfortunately for the company GME, the court disagreed and US judge Karla Spaulding granted ownership rights to France, referencing a US law that states naval ships such as these are protected by a sovereign right. The law applies because the court ruled the valuables most likely came from the French fleet's flagship vessel, La Trinité, led by French explorer and naval officer Jean Ribault between 1562 and 1565.
Story goes, Ribault set sail for the Americas with three ships and 150 Huguenots in 1562. The aim was to set up a French colony in what is now Florida, irking the Spanish who had laid claim to that part of the country. His plan worked initially but ultimately failed. After a few years of stability followed by a few more of starvation, piracy, massacres, and fighting, the French eventually lost the ground to the Spanish and Ribault was executed. In 1565, during the skirmish with the Spanish and shortly before he was killed, Ribault was surprised by a violent storm. While he survived to fight another day, La Trinité – and many crewmen – sank.
Fast forward almost five centuries and what remained of the wreck was located and rescued by GME, who had been granted a permit by Florida state to explore seven areas of seafloor close to Cape Canaveral. The divers found a valuable treasure trove of Renaissance French goodies, including three bronze cannons, a one-of-a-kind marble monument bearing the French king's coat of arms, 19 iron cannons, 12 anchors, a stone grinding wheel, and more. Together, they could be worth millions.
According to the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum in northern Florida, the next step is the excavation, which is to be organized by the state of Florida in cooperation with the French.
"This is St. Augustine's founding story, the clash between European powers on the First Coast," Kathy Fleming, the museum's executive director told Live Science. "This shipwreck is the most significant found in Florida waters."