Wreck of HMS Victory salvage claim
Controversy about commercial salvage surrounds new claims of the discovery of the HMS Victory sunk in 1744.
There is widespread interest in the reported finding of a wreck off Guernsey that may be that of the British flagship, The Victory (the predecessor to Nelson’s flagship of the same name) which went down with all hands in 1744. The discovery is due to be announced today by Odyssey Marine Exploration, an American commercial salvage company. The wreck is likely to be of great archaeological interest, but potentially also very attractive for the monetary value of dozens of bronze cannon and other finds preserved on it.
If the wreck is a British warship then it should be protected by ‘sovereign immunity’, as property of the state, and there should be no question of its exploitation for salvage, or indeed for the unwarranted disturbance of the last resting place of the hundreds of seamen who went down with the ship. Although the UK Government has been unwilling to ratify the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Heritage (which came into force earlier this year) it has publicly endorsed the principles of the Convention as set out in its Annex. This specifically disallows the sale of artefacts from historic wrecks and requires that the first priority should be the preservation of historic remains in situ, including due respect for human remains.
The CBA is a member of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee and supports its position on the protection of wrecks in international waters.
Dr Mike Heyworth, CBA Director, said:
The Government must honour its commitment to the spirit of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and to the Annex which it has adopted. There should be no question of negotiation with any commercial salvors in this situation.
If this reported wreck proves to be the lost British flagship, The Victory, then it is undoubtedly of national significance. An archaeological discovery of this outstanding importance on land would be subject to legal protection and there would be no question of unnecessary excavation or the selling of finds to finance the operation. At sea, however, such discoveries are still governed by an antiquated system of salvage law. In the case of a sovereign vessel, such as a British warship, there is no question about the UK Government’s right to determine the appropriate treatment of a wreck in international waters. We look forward to a Government statement shortly on this case and hope it will bring forward the opportunity once again to review the reform of UK salvage law.
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