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A storybook shipwreck. The US brig that launched Melville's `Billy Budd'

By Nita Kurmins GilsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 17, 1988

San Diego

THE recent discovery of the sunken American brig of war the USS Somers, off Veracruz, Mexico, has dredged up an infamous part of American history as well as raising some delicate international questions as to the fate of this historical vessel. The Somers sank in a sudden gale on Dec. 8, 1846, while on assigned blockade duty off Veracruz during the Mexican war with the United States. The unpopularity of that war and the subsequent massive loss of land incurred by Mexico make the ship's ownership and protection a thorny issue.

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The US claims sovereign ownership, but Mexico has noted that it could be considered war booty, since it was a warship. The US has countered that it sank in a storm, not from wartime activity.

``Were the wreck in US waters,'' says James Delgado, chief maritime historian with the US National Park Service, ``it most probably would be listed as a National Historical Landmark.''

Last November, the US State Department requested that Mexico protect the wreck, but no official action on the part of the Mexican government has resulted. According to George Belcher, who led the expedition that located the Somers, this is one of the rare times the US has ever made such a request.

In May 1986, Mr. Belcher, an art dealer and deep-sea diver, his brother Joel, and magnetometry expert Daniel Kosti-Karell located the wreck in 107 feet of water five miles off the coast of Veracruz.

The wreck is an archaeologist's dream: an important historical ship lying undisturbed - in disarray, but intact.

``It's the closest thing to a storybook shipwreck I have seen,'' said Mitchell Marken, the team's underwater archaeologist. ``The whole structure is there.''

``The Somers is believed to be the best and one of the only shipwrecks found of its historical period ... the 1840s,'' says Mr. Delgado.

The thorough documentation and rich history of the ship make its discovery especially valuable.

Delgado verified that at least six of the ship's 10 cannons were visible, along with one anchor and artifacts such as crystal glasses and wine bottles.

In a briefing March 16 to the State Department, the US Navy, and the undersecretary of state for Latin American affairs, Delgado stressed the urgency of acting quickly to keep the fragile site safe from bounty hunters.

``It is so significant, not only historically, but archaeologically, that the US Somers deserves our utmost protection,'' Delgado says.

But then, the Somers is no ordinary ship.

``Our discovery of the US Somers has revived a story of mutiny, hangings, ghosts, courts-martial, and cover-ups,'' says Belcher, who lives in San Francisco.

On its maiden voyage, in 1842, the Somers was the scene of the only mutiny in the history of the US Navy.

Begun by 18-year-old Philip Spencer, son of then-Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, the incident was actually an attempted mutiny that failed. The captain had Spencer and two cohorts hanged after a ``drumhead'' court-martial was conducted at sea by the officers and captain.