Friday, November 02, 2012

The Atocha and the Plundering State

Let’s first define the term, "State." In Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary it is defined in numerous ways. Essentially, it is how a particular group of people deems it when they want it to be applied by statute. In other words, it is impossible to answer the question without knowing how the law makers have defined it. But the true meaning of the word State from its very origin means, "To Stand." Webster’s 1828 Dict. states; "n. L. status, from sto, to stand, to be fixed. State is fixedness or standing." State in one sense means government, while State in another sense mean people for tax purposes. It also says, "Estate; possession. Now obsolete."   In America, the term can be applied to the United States or to the individual States of this Union. It's important to note that in the United States, the state is interchangeable with the term, “Estate”.

There is no better, and more fascinating example of the state’s power to plunder than the journey of one very hard-working man. You may have never heard of him, but after Jimmy Buffet, this man, Mel Fisher--a deep-sea explorer who pioneered the development of Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA)--was Key West’s most celebrated figure.

Why is he so celebrated? He is the man who dedicated his life to finding—and who eventually found—the world’s most magnificent treasure, that of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the richest Spanish Galleon ever to have sunk in the western hemisphere, in the Florida Keys in 1622, setting in motion the Spanish Kingdom’s downfall as a world economic power.  The Atocha's manifest listed over 47 tons of registered silver and gold, but estimates of the smuggled emeralds still being found on this ship are expected to exceed even the registered cargo, an estimated $2 billion.

In 1969, 347 years after the Atocha sank, Mel Fisher began his hunt for the holy grail of treasures locked inside the doomed ship at the bottom of the sea. At first Fisher and his crew were searching in the wrong place, the Keys of Metacumbe, currently Florida’s central keys, because that’s the location stated in the first reports—72 original documents—of the disaster. However, until 1969, no one had taken into consideration  the nomenclature at the time the ship sunk. It wasn’t until Dr. Eugene Lyon, Shipwreck Historian, went to Seville Spain, and after pouring through thousands of documents at the Archive of the Indies, he discovered the Spanish word, "metacumbe", referred to all of the Florida Keys, not just the modern day middle islands.  Lyons made another discovery that further narrowed down the precise location of the shipwreck:  the salvage papers from the Atocha’s sister ship, the Santa Margarita, drafted in 1626.

Upon learning this new information, Fisher moved his boats to the new spot and began to search anew. In May, 1971, after several months, 125,000 linear miles, thousands of dollars, and countless hours at sea, Fisher and his divers found a 17th century galleon anchor,  but it wasn’t until 1973 that Fisher started finding precious metals. This is when the state reared its ugly head, and started manufacturing claims and accusations against Fisher, starting an endless legal nightmare.

Despite the state's interference, with the aid of experts and scholars, Fisher and his divers, including his two sons and daughter-in-law, continued the quest. Sadly, in 1975, after finding the bronze cannons of the Atocha, proving to all that what they were finding was indeed, authentic (the state was asserting Fisher's discoveries were planted), Mel Fisher’s son Dirk, and daughter-in-law, Angel, and one other diver, Rick Gage, drowned due to the malfunction of one of the pumps on the tugboat they inhabited. Still, Mel Fisher, despite this tragedy, insisted they go on, and it was ten years to the day of  Dirk’s death that Fisher’s other son, Kane, found the mother lode, July 20, 1985.

Unfortunately, Dirk, Angel, and Rick Gage were not the only casualties. Two others died during their journey bringing the total to five. An eerie coincidence: 260 people died when the Atocha sank, leaving five survivors.

Between 1975 and 1980, Fisher and his divers found numerous artifacts and treasure but no bonanza. Up until this time, Fisher held a contract to share 25% of what he recovered from the Atocha with the State of Florida. But after he found gold, all deals were off. The state—both state and federal—sued Fisher for the entire wealth of the Atocha.

The Supreme Court

Who earned the right to salvage the Atocha?  Fisher fought “the state” all the way up to the Supreme Court, which, in 1982, decided in his favor.  The high court ruled that he alone owned the wreck. But that didn’t stop his legal troubles. The state, both local and federal, continued to pursue him and his treasure.

On July 20, 1985, Fisher and his team finally found the mother lode of the Atocha, 47 tons of solid silver, worth hundreds of millions of dollars that they, all by themselves, brought to the surface using shopping carts and milk crates.. Ten years, to the day, that marked the death of his son, daughter-in-law, and friend.


Six months later, the crew found nearly three pounds of rare Columbian emeralds, but the bulk of the gems are still out there. One beautiful emerald ring (left) was appraised at $114,000, another at $600,000.
"The plunderers have historically organized themselves into States and have tried to make their activities an exception to the universal moral principles by introducing laws that “sanction” plunder and a moral code that “glorifies” it. The plunderers also deceive their victims by means of “la Ruse” (trickery, deception, fraud) and the use of “sophisms” (fallacies) to justify and disguise what they are doing. It is the task of political economists like Bastiat to expose the trickery, fraud, and fallacies used by the plunderers to hide what they do from their “dupes” (the ordinary people) and to eliminate organized plunder from society for good." -- Frédéric Bastiat
Aside from the millions of dollars Mel Fisher spent to find the sunken treasure, he paid an additional $4 million in attorney fees fighting the state. The bottom line is that most people do not possess the wherewithal to endure the brutality of the state in matters such as these. The Mel Fisher story is extraordinarily rare because he actually won.

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