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

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.

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.

Evidently a strict disciplinarian, Capt. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie had numerous floggings administered on board the overcrowded training vessel - three-quarters of the crew of 120 were 19 years of age or younger.

The mutiny was quelled after the hanging of Spencer, Boatswain's Mate Samuel Cromwell, and Seaman Elijah Small.

The event not only stirred controversy among the American public, but also convinced sailors, a traditionally superstitious lot, that the ship was cursed and haunted by the ghosts of the three hanged men. The Somers was thereafter avoided by sailors whenever possible.

Captain Mackenzie, meanwhile, was tried by a Navy court-martial on five charges, including murder, but was eventually acquitted of all of them.

Public debate raged on, however, with the most vociferous opponent of Mackenzie's innocence being James Fenimore Cooper, who publicly accused the captain of murder.

The Somers affair even became part of American literature when Herman Melville heard of the proceedings from his cousin, Guert Gansevoort, the ship's second in command. Melville became fascinated with the incident and based his novella ``Billy Budd'' on the Somers mutiny.

One positive footnote to the unfortunate incident: After the dismal failure of the Somers training voyage, the Navy decided to set up a land-based training facility and established the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

According to Belcher, the Somers mutiny became such an embarrassment to the Navy that 19th-century naval eti-quette dictated that officers should never discuss the matter.

Discovery of the ship was kept secret until last November to give the State Department, the Navy, and the Mexican government time to jointly protect the site.

These precautions, however, may be in vain if the Mexican government continues to delay its decision. Belcher says he knows of one Mexican diver who has located the site and has been bringing up some artifacts.

The only way to protect the site, should it be declared a monument, would be constant patrol by the Mexican Navy, Delgado says.

If it were declared a historical monument, some of the steps that would be taken, according to Delgado, involve nondestructive documentation of the wreck, detailed maps, drawings, and a careful archaeological display that would reflect the multinational heritage of the Somers and its significance to both the US and Mexico.

This display would involve educating the public through media presentations and literature.

``There is not much down there in terms of treasure,'' says Belcher, ``but the historical significance is really important.''

According to Delgado, the Somers Discovery Project may be the only privately funded expedition he has seen whose goal is history, not bounty.

``The Somers story, her dark past, and tales of ghosts are the jewels of this find,'' Mr. Marken adds.

His group is working on a documentary film whose anticipated sales may begin to offset the approximately $85,000 already invested by the partnership.

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