U.K. Supreme Court makes ruling over $43 million in treasure from World War II ship sunk by Japanese torpedoes

Gold coins found in centuries-old shipwrecks off Colombia

South Africa has won a legal claim over $43 million worth of treasure from a World War II shipwreck that was found off the country's coast by a British exploration company, the U.K. Supreme Court said on Wednesday. The sinking of the the SS Tilawa — which has been called the "Indian Titanic" — killed 280 people and sent over 2,000 bars of silver plunging to the ocean floor.

On November 23, 1942, the SS Tilawa was sunk by Japanes torpedoes in the Indian Ocean, the court said in a news release announcing the ruling. In addition to over 900 people on board, the ship was also carrying 2,364 bars of silver that had been purchased by what was then known as the Union of South Africa to be turned into coins. The treasure aboard the sunken ship was irretrievable until 2017, when a specialist salvage vehicle from Argentum Exploration Ltd, a British company owned by hedge fund leader Paul Marshall, was able to reach the silver. 

The treasure was transported to the United Kingdom and declared to be the company's property, with Argentum Exploration arguing in a lower court that maritime law states that someone who salvages a treasure can claim payment for recovering it. The company argued that it was a voluntary salvage, which means that a payment could be asked for even though South Africa did not ask them to retrieve the silver. 

South Africa argued that the lower court had no power to hear the company's claim because it was a foreign state, while the company said the country did not have immunity in the suit. 

The argument brought before the court focused on if the silver was "in use or intended for use for commercial purposes" when the ship sank during World War II, the court said. The court first found in favor of Argentum Exploration and said that the silver was in use or going to be used for commercial purposes. 

South Africa filed an appeal, which was heard by the country's Court of Appeal. That court agreed with the initial ruling. South Africa then filed an appeal with the U.K's Supreme Court. 

The SS Tilawa. SS Tilawa Foundation

The Supreme Court ruled that the silver was not in use nor intended to be used in commercial purposes, so South Africa is immune from the claim. While both parties agreed that the Tilawa was in use for commercial purposes, the silver aboard the ship was not, the court said. The court ruled that planning to mint the silver did not count as a commercial purpose. 

"Cargo sitting in the hold of a ship is not being used for any purpose, commercial or otherwise," the court said in the news release. 

The Tilawa's sinking has been dubbed the "Forgotten Tragedy" of World War II, according to a website commemorating the incident. The ship was carrying 732 passengers, 222 crew members and 4 gunners at the time of its sinking. In addition to the silver, the ship had over 5,900 tons of other cargo. 

Two torpedoes fired on by the Japanese Imperial Navy struck the ship, sinking it. The SS Tilawa is described online as the "only passenger cargo liner attacked in the Indian Ocean during the Second World War."

Two nearby ships were able to rescue 678 passengers, but 280 people died, according to the website. 


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