Briefing on the Gifting of the Wreck of HMS Victory sunk in 1744May 2012
This paper poses some important questions to the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the charitable trust, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, to whichthe wreck of HMS Victory 1744 was gifted by MOD in January 2012. These questions, tabledat the end of the paper, need to be answered urgently so that everyone has the opportunity tounderstand how and why Government has made its decisions. It is most important that thefuture of this iconic example of the UK’s underwater cultural heritage is managed in aresponsible and transparent manner which gives confidence to the world that the UK Government is following best archaeological practice and complying with UK heritage policy.In the light of the questions identified in this paper no further work should be allowed at thewreck site by the Maritime Heritage Foundation until the questions have been satisfactorilyresolved. In the meantime, the wreck should be monitored in situ by an independentarchaeological contractor.HMS Victory, a 100 gun first rate warship, was the flagship of the British Navy commanded byAdmiral Sir John Balchin and the predecessor to Nelson’s Victory (1765) now in Portsmouth.For reasons unknown it sank with the loss of over 1,000 lives in a violent storm in the EnglishChannel in October 1744.Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a firm of commercial salvors from the USA, located thewreck in 2008 while searching for high value historic wreck sites in international waters on theUK’s Continental Shelf. They reported the find to the MOD because HMS Victory was, whileit remained in Crown ownership, a sovereign immune warship and therefore immune fromsalvage. Thus Odyssey had no salvage rights and their subsequent claim to be salvors-in- possession is almost certainly unfounded. MOD, without taking any archaeological advice,consented to two cannons being lifted for identification purposes, although such identificationwas not in doubt and consequently there appears to have been no archaeological justificationfor disturbing the site. Odyssey announced the find in February 2009 and made an offer toMOD to excavate the wreck. However to help decide the future management of the wreck MOD and DCMS launched a public consultation which closed in June 2010.The results of the consultation were not announced until July 2011 and MOD reported that theoffer by Odyssey would not be accepted. We know that Odyssey’s offer was based onfinancing the work by de-accessioning and selling artefacts which is against normalarchaeological practice and also inconsistent with the UNESCO Convention on the Protectionof the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001 and its Annex. The UK has adopted the Annex as itsstated heritage policy for Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH). MOD however announced thatthey would undertake a phased approach and that they were considering following up an offer by an undisclosed charitable trust to manage the wreck. We now know that this was theMaritime Heritage Foundation chaired by Lord Lingfield (Sir Robert Balchin) a distant relationto Sir John Balchin who died in the sinking. Lord Lingfield is closely associated with Odysseyand was quoted in Odyssey’s press release at the time of the find in February 2009 as saying:
“I and my family hope that as many of the artifacts on it as possible will be raised to the surface; our fear is that erosion, or trawler fishing will destroy what is there within a very few years”.