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Miami (AFP) - Treasure hunters have apparently found the 500-year-old remains of a naval expedition led by a colonizer who could have changed Florida's history, making it French-speaking at least for a while.
The big question is if the shipwreck is that of "La Trinite," the 32-gun flagship of a fleet led by Jean Ribault, a French navigator who tried to establish a Protestant colony in the southeast US under orders from King Charles IX.
They probably are, say authorities in Florida, the French government and independent archeologists.
And if they in fact are, this is an unparalleled find, said John de Bry, director of the Center for Historical Archeology, a not-for-profit organization.
"If it turns out to be 'La Trinite,' it is the most important, historically and archaeologically, the most important shipwreck ever found in North America," he told AFP.
All indications are that the shipwreck found is the real thing.
The artefacts found at the site off Cape Canaveral include three bronze cannons with markings from the reign of King Henri II, who ruled right before Charles IX; and a stone monument with the French coat of arms that was to be used to claim the new territory.
The remains are "consistent with material associated with the lost French Fleet of 1565," said Meredith Beatrice, director of communications with the Florida Department of State.
In 1565, Ribault set sail from Fort Caroline, today Jacksonville, to attack his arch-enemy, the Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who had been sent to Florida by King Philip of Spain to thwart French plans to set up a colony.
But Ribault got caught in a hurricane, which destroyed "La Trinite" and three other galleons and ended French dreams of claiming Florida.
Ribault and hundreds of other French Huguenots were massacred by Menendez de Aviles.
- Historical interest -
"If the French had not been driven south and ships sunk by the hurricane, we would have a totally different story," said de Bry. "Florida could have been speaking French for a number of years."
In modern day Florida, archeologists and historians have been looking for this shipwreck for years.
Two years ago, an expedition from the state-run St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program gave it a shot but found nothing.
Marine archeologist Chuck Meide, who led that try, said "this is one of the most important shipwreck discoveries we have had in Florida."
The find was finally made in May of this year by a treasure hunting firm called Global Marine Exploration.
Precisely where has not been disclosed.
"It is not advisable," said French consul general Clement Leclerc.
"This is potentially a major discovery and we think it deserves a scientific and rigorous analysis and exploitation, because we think it should be later presented to the general public given its historical interest," he told AFP.
- Not French -
The one who is not happy is Robert Pritchett, the owner of GME, who says he has invested three million dollars in this gig and now runs the risk of getting nothing for his trouble.
Under laws governing shipwrecks, the United States recognizes other countries' sovereignty over warships of theirs that sink in US waters.
So Florida must -- and it plans to -- hand over the remains in this case to France.
But Pritchett does not want to end up with nothing and is promising to fight it.
"It is not a French military vessel. Tell France to prove it. They cannot. I can tell you France has no proof of anything," said Pritchett.
"We are professionals here at GME, not novice divers like LAMP and state archaeologists," he added.
The find has been kept under wraps since at least August, but came to light recently because of a legal dispute between France and GME over rights to the shipwreck.
In October GME filed a suit claiming ownership of all the remains found at the shipwreck site. But early this month France and the state of Florida filed a counter-suit.
"We are very excited and curious to see how the legal action goes, but we feel it's a very strong case for France," said Meide.