MONTEVIDEO – Three historic vessels that are part of Uruguay’s maritime heritage are resting on the bottom of the River Plate under tons of concrete poured during expansions of the port of Montevideo, Ruben Collado, who found the shipwrecks, told Efe.
The Uruguayan government and UNESCO have declared the wrecks part of the national heritage, preventing salvage work that could recover the vessels and exhibit them in a museum, the Argentine treasure hunter said.
Collado said he found the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de Loreto, built at the Ferrol shipyards in 1781, off Montevideo in 1984.
When Collado and his team were working to salvage the ship, it was declared a national heritage site.
“That means nobody can ever touch it,” the treasure hunter said.
Collado sued the Uruguayan government and the courts awarded him compensation for expenses incurred on the preliminary work.
Nuestra Señora de Loreto, a 40-gun man-of-war carrying mercury for gold mining in Peru, went down in a storm in the River Plate around 1792.
Near Nuestra Señora de Loreto’s wreckage lies the frigate Nuestra Señora de la Visitacion and a ship called the Burford, about which there is not much information, although it is thought to have been a warship sold to the British East Company, Collado said.
Nuestra Señora de la Visitacion sailed from Cadiz, Spain, with quicksilver as cargo and families hoping to colonize the port of San Jose in Patagonia.
In 1778, Nuestra Señora de la Visitación sank in a storm off Montevideo.
“The years went by and there was a need to expand the port in Montevideo, but the ships were down there,” Collado said. “There was a need to enlarge the container dock and the people (in the government) at the time just did it, despite the ships being part of the nation’s heritage.”
“In all these years, there has been no preservation effort at all” by Uruguayan authorities and “not a single diver has gone near” the wrecks, the treasure hunter said.
Collado, who will start salvaging the British ship Lord Clive in November, complained about agreements signed with UNESCO by earlier Uruguayan governments that prevented access to the wrecks.
“I think that now there has been a change of mind among authorities,” he said, referring to former President Jose Mujica, who authorized the salvaging of the Lord Clive shortly before the end of his five-year term on March 1.
Collado is calling for the salvaging, exploration and cultural and tourism exploitation of sunken vessels because of the “benefits” for both society and governments.
Standard contracts in these operations award 50 percent of any valuables in the ships’ hold to the government, with the remainder going to the salvage firm.
In one of his most recent ventures, Collado salvaged about 8,000 gold coins from the hold of the Señora de la Luz, which sank off Montevideo in 1752.
The coins were sold and the proceeds used by the Uruguayan government to build a public school.
“There are still some 53,000 gold coins on that ship. I can’t even imagine what could be done with that,” Collado said.
Collado, who manages two maritime museums in Uruguay, said he planned to create a theme park around the Lord Clive to “attract tourists to the country.”