WASHINGTON - More than 450 years ago, a three-masted ship sank in a hurricane off the coast of Florida, taking with it France's hopes of colonizing the peninsula.
Since the wreckage of "La Trinite" was discovered in 2016, it has been at the center of an epic legal battle between an American treasure hunter and the French government, with Paris recently claiming a decisive victory -- or so officials hope.
A 24-page judgment, delivered on September 29 by US Magistrate Judge Allen Winsor in Tallahassee, delved into the distant and largely forgotten era of "French Florida," when a colony was established there by French Huguenots in the mid-16th century.
The colony's short existence, and Florida's longtime history under Spanish rule, may have been the direct result of the sinking of La Trinite and the squadron of ships commanded by Captain Jean Ribault, sent by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the French Protestant group.
The wreck of La Trinite lies at a depth of less than 10 meters (33 feet), a stone's throw from a beach on Cape Canaveral. It was discovered in 2016 by a private underwater research company, Global Marine Exploration (GME), led by American Robert Pritchett.
- Fleur-de-lis cannon -
Among the objects identified underwater are three bronze cannons decorated with a traditional French fleur-de-lis symbol, as well as a prized marble column bearing the coat of arms of the Kingdom of France, which Ribault was supposed to install on land to mark French sovereignty.
For seven years, GME and Pritchett have been waging a legal battle over who can claim the wreck, which likely contains other riches.
Standing in the way of GME is the Sunken Military Craft Act (SMCA), a law signed by then-president George W. Bush in 2004 which recognizes the sovereignty of a country over its former warships.
In June 2018, a federal court ruled that La Trinite was indeed Captain Ribault's flagship, and thus a French naval vessel.
But GME then argued that the ship, when it sank, had been carrying goods and settlers to the New World and was not engaged in a military conflict. France and Spain were not even at war at the time, the company argued.
However, French authorities, through their American lawyer Jim Goold, offered evidence that the ship was still considered a military vessel at the time.
"A lot of people, a very excellent team did research in the (French) Bibliotheque Nationale where there are a spectacular collection of records from the 16th century," Goold told AFP.
The library's "records show everything that was on La Trinite, that it was a Navy ship, that it had every specific details about the cannons and the gunpowder," he said.
The ship was also engaged in conflict as part of an ongoing dispute between French Protestants and the Catholic Crown of Spain, Goold said.
He explained that upon leaving Fort Caroline -- the French colony in Florida where the US city of Jacksonville now lies -- Ribault "informed the French commander of the fort that he was going to attack the Spanish."
Goold convinced the court. "France has presented sufficient uncontested evidence to establish La Trinite sank while on military noncommercial service, meaning La Trinite is a 'sunken military craft,'" Judge Winsor ruled.
- "New France?" -
As a last resort, GME argued that France had benefited unduly from the US company's work to locate, photograph and search the wreck.
But Winsor shot that claim down, finding that France could not be held responsible for services it had not ordered.
"This decision is a relief, and we hope that this legal saga will now stop, so that we can concentrate on the preservation of these elements of cultural heritage," Florence Hermite, a legal attache at the French embassy, told AFP.
Will the world now finally be able to focus in on what La Trinite holds? Goold certainly hopes so.
"I think it is quite appropriate to say that this is the single most historically important shipwreck in North America," said the lawyer, whose work for Spain in 2012 led to the reclaiming of $500 million worth of treasures found in a Spanish galleon shipwreck.
"When Captain Ribault arrived, France had commanding military strength in Florida -- more ships, more soldiers, more cannons than the Spanish," he said.
"But the loss of La Trinite and the hundreds of French soldiers and sailors and colonists resulted in the King of France deciding to focus on Canada instead."
"If there had not been this hurricane, who knows?" he wondered, positing that maybe even "Washington would be the capital of New France."