A curious back and forth appeared in one of the dailies this week that certainly piqued my interest.
There’s an underwater treasure hunting outfit here, called Allen Exploration, that is not too pleased that the Davis administration is considering changing the country’s split when salvagers pull lost spoils from the sea.
According to reporting in The Tribune, Allen Exploration, the multimillion-dollar salvaging company owned by Carl Allen (who also owns Walker’s Cay), is threatening to stop diving for gold. That is if the government adjusts this country’s take from the usual agreement of 75/25, where the treasure hunters get the larger share.
This fight for underwater antiquities emerged into the sunlight when Attorney General Ryan Pinder recently commented that the current government was looking to change legislation “relative to underwater cultural heritage by amending the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Act (AMMA).”
Pinder’s statement elicited a terse response from American attorney David Concannon, Allen Exploration’s spokesman, who shot back, “If a 75/25 split is the new law (with the government getting 75), Allen Exploration will stop searching for anything underwater. Period.”
Hardening the company’s stance, Concannon added, “Mr. Allen is not in the business of turning money into heat by lighting dollar bills on fire.”
Of course, what would a modern duel of legal will be without our venerable minister of national security joining the fight?
Minister Wayne Munroe, QC, added his two gold ingots by inviting Allen Exploration to leave The Bahamas if they don’t like whatever deal the government decides on. In other words, take the deal or pound sand.
A quick history lesson: Allen Exploration signed this (most favorable) license deal ( which is now under scrutiny) under the former Minnis administration; first in 2018, then again with a renewal signed before elections in 2021.
This squabble, a timely reminder of our “pirate days” legacy, may seem minor on the surface but dive deeper and you will find there are potential billions – yes, billions – at stake.
Perhaps that is why Concannon was again quick to attack Minister Munroe in the press with this response via The Tribune: “The minister’s most recent comments are unfortunate. It seems like he is perpetually misinformed.
“We have, in fact, had conversations with the government since the minister’s last press briefing. I am not at liberty to discuss the particulars, but I can say they are not consistent with what the minister of national security said today.”
Concannon went so far as to question whether our “perpetually misinformed” Minister Munroe was looking out for himself and not the Bahamian people.
This response is not the typical diplomatic speak you would expect from a foreign company seeking to do business here while cultivating a relationship with the “new day” government. But nothing these past few years has been typical regarding politics, especially regarding money.
Another quick history lesson: Back in 1708, the San Jose (known as “the mother of all shipwrecks”) sank off the coast of Colombia. The armed Spanish galleon had a crew of more than 600 and a cargo of millions of gold and silver coins, emeralds, and other treasures that today would value over $14 billion.
In 1982, the salvaging company Glocca Morda claimed it had located the San Jose. The company felt it had an agreement with the Colombians to split the treasure 50/50.
At a meeting with Colombian government officials to solidify the deal, the government informed them the split would be more like 75/25, with Colombia taking the larger share.
Likely upset at the change in the agreement, Glocca Morda suddenly claimed, “Oops!!! Our bad. Actually, we didn’t find it after all! Sorry, not sorry!”
And just like that, a 40-year fight (that rages on) between the salvagers from the Glocca Morda and the Colombian government began. Back then, the Colombians immediately arrested the salvagers; guns were drawn.
Eventually, the Colombian Supreme Court got involved, Spain got involved, and even UNESCO got involved. (Seriously, someone should write a movie on the San Jose.)
Back to the present day, our position as a country is also lost somewhere in murky waters.
On the one hand, a 75/25 split in favor of salvagers seems almost criminal if the find in question relates to the Spain Galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas, which sank in waters off Grand Bahama and is said to be worth over $2 billion.
Ahem, that’s more than half the current value of our foreign reserves.
On the other hand, without regulation and agreements with reputable treasure hunters, The Bahamas is liable to be plundered by new-age pirates, who would sneakily (and illegally) take all our hidden treasures and split none.
Though it is true salvagers put up all of the upfront cash for these operations, perhaps a tiered system may be the best solution; if a find is worth a couple thousand to millions, there is a 50/50 split.
But if the sunken treasure brought up is worth hundreds of millions to billions, well, “we ga need dat lil ting” to be split 75/25 in Bahamians’ favor.
By the way, I’m happy the defense force has a huge role in this; now, we need loyal archaeologists and conservationists in our ranks.
How much money is beneath the ocean?
Enough for local and international law changes, countries to threaten other countries (I’m looking at you, my part-ancestral country Spain), the United Nations to get involved, and the United States to get involved.
Numerous supreme courts and indigenous populations (who were the ones genuinely robbed of treasures) have even become involved.
Here at home, there seem to be many moving parts to the government vs. Allen Exploration public relations standoff.
But I must admit I agree with Munroe in his stance of “make a good deal with Bahamians” or walk the plank.
Cultural patrimony should never be given away, especially to foreign companies under threat.
Whatever your personal opinion on treasure hunters and money splits, I hope you’re intrigued enough to do some research.
Also, keep your eyes on Parliament and what is happening (and happened) with the Antiquities, Monuments, and Museums Act.
If, in 2022, we as Bahamians do not recognize the value of what we possess in all our natural, cultural, and historical assets, I’m afraid we don’t deserve to have them.
• Inigo “Naughty” Zenicaze- laya is the host of radio show “Talking Heads” on Guardian Radio.