Odyssey Marine Exploration’s former research vessel Odyssey Explorer working on the HMS Victory wreck site in 2012
[Copyright: Astrid Harrison 2012 All rights reserved]
In the latest twist to the ongoing saga of HMS Victory 1744 and the attempts of the Maritime Heritage Foundation to salvage the ship under a commercial salvage contract, the UK Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the Royal Navy has conducted an independent survey of the HMS Victory wreck site using the Hydrographic survey vessel HMS Echo. The survey is significant because it is the first independent survey of the historically important wreck which the MoD has admitted. It has been a consistent criticism of the Maritime Heritage Foundation [MHF] Project from mainstream archaeological bodies that all the previous surveys and interpretation of the site has been conducted and published by Odyssey Marine Exploration, and its consultants. Critics argue that Odyssey has a financial interest in promoting the risks to the site and thus the need for salvage, because the company has never disowned the claims made to shareholders that the ship was carrying a cargo of privately owned bullion worth as much as $250 million when she sank with the loss of all hands on her way home from Portugal in October 1744. Neither has the Maritime Heritage Foundation been able to answer claims that the contract the charity signed with Odyssey, which was announced in January 2012, would enable Odyssey to sell artifacts from the site which were not obviously Crown property.
The revelation of the new survey comes in the answer to a written Parliamentary question from Tim Loughton MP, recorded in Hansard on 24 October 2016. Mike Penning MP, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence stated,
“Recent progress on the wreck of HMS Victory 1744 has included a survey of the site by HMS Echo. When the results of this survey have been analysed they will be discussed by the members of the Victory 1744 Advisory Group as part of the ongoing work to protect this historically important site.”
One aspect of the wreck site the Victory 1744 Advisory Group will be looking for is evidence that some excavation may have taken place and that at least some of the bronze cannon from the wreck site were prepared for lifting in the Summer of 2012, as was revealed in an email from senior conservative peer, and chair of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, Lord Lingfield, to Mr Simon Routh of the Ministry of Defence Navy Command, sent on 22 July 2012. In the e-mail Lord Lingfield admitted that the Scientific Committee of the MHF, then chaired by the late Dr Margaret Rule, had authorised work including the “dusting off of mobile surface sediments”, which maritime archaeologists suggest is a euphemism for excavation, the investigation of areas “off site” which is suggested as more excavation, and the preparation of cannon found “off site”, or “most at risk” for “…lifting as soon as permission to do so is received.” Experts suggest this activity could have consisted of anything from excavating around the cannon to free the object from the sea bed, to the placing lifting strops, or even moving the cannon to a collecting point.
At the time the e-mail was sent neither Odyssey, nor the Maritime Heritage Foundation had the required permission of the then Secretary of State for Defence, Philip Hammond, to excavate or recover any material from the site, and independent experts have argued that the kind of removal of sediments and preparations for lifting described by Lord Lingfield in the e-mail could have been a material breach of the Deed of Gift by which the Ministry of Defence transferred management of the wrecksite to the MHF.
It is also pointed out that there was a rationale for Odyssey and the MHF potentially overstepping their authority as is alleged. During the Summer of 2012 Odyssey was under pressure to deliver visible results for a three part television documentary, “the Billion Dollar Wreck Hunt”[aka Silver Rush] which was being made in part on board the Odyssey Explorer, and which made a feature of the supposed value of HMS Victory’s alleged cargo.
Adding to the climate of suspicion about what was actually happening at the wreck site, at the same time as the e-mail suggests that Odyssey may have been carrying out unauthorised excavation and recovery work on the HMS Victory wreck site, the Mexican controlled, Tampa based, treasure hunting and underwater mining company, also placed environmental test rigs on the sea bed without holding a licence from the Marine Management Organisation. That activity was assessed as breaking the terms of the Marine and Coastal Access Act four times, and resulted in Odyssey being issued a final written warning letter in lieu of prosecution for the alleged offences in November 2014.
Whitehall watchers looking at the wording of Mr Penning’s reply also point out that the use of the phrase “ongoing work to protect” HMS Victory 1744, without any reference to recovering material for the nation, suggests that the Ministry of Defence is being very careful not to repeat the embarrassment of the premature granting of permission to salvage the cannon and other vulnerable material granted in October 2014, which current Secretary of State Michael Fallon was then forced to rescind in the face of a threatened judicial review into the terms and circumstances of the gifting of the wreck to the Maritime Heritage Foundation. The UK Government’s stated policy for historic wrecks is to follow the annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which takes the preservation of a wrecked vessel in situ as the starting point of any decision making.