Under swirling clouds, its four-story hull illuminated by lanterns tied to its masts, the massive warship sinks beneath the waves. For more than two centuries, Peter Monamy's dramatic painting was one of the few images available of the tragic end of HMS Victory, which mysteriously disappeared, along with its crew of 1,100 men, one stormy night in 1744. Now, however, shipwreck salvage company Odyssey promises to fill out the picture. On Feb. 2, the Florida-based company announced it had recovered the Victory's remains.
"This is the most significant shipwreck discovery in history," says Odyssey president Greg Stemm. "It's the solution to one of the most intriguing naval mysteries in history, it went down with the most famous admiral of his time, it has the largest collection of bronze cannon in the world onboard and research suggests that it has one of the largest shipments of gold and silver that will likely ever be found on a shipwreck."(Read an interview with two Titanic wreck divers.)
There's the rub. As Odyssey has discovered before, where there is gold and silver, there is likely to be controversy as well. The publicly traded firm has repeatedly provoked the ire of archaeologists who complain that Odyssey is more interested in profit than in protecting historically valuable artifacts. Currently, the company is locked in a court battle with the country of Spain over ownership of the remains of a ship that experts believe to be the 17th-century Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.
Built in 1737, the HMS Victory (a later version would be commanded by Admiral Nelson) was, in its day, the most powerful warship in the Royal Navy. In 1744, it was part of the fleet, commanded by war hero Admiral John Balchin, that broke through a French blockade of the Tagus river at Lisbon. Returning to England, a fierce storm hit the fleet, first separating the Victory from the other ships, and then sinking it, reportedly near the Channel Islands. The 1,100 sailors on board, as well as the sons of some of Britain's most prestigious families who had signed on for the merchant adventure, disappeared at sea.
After years of exploration, Odyssey located the wreckage about 62 miles (100 km) from the site where public opinion has long held that the Victory went down. That location, according to Stemm, helps clarify why the ship sank. "If it had run aground on the Casquets [an outcropping of rocks in the Channel], as historians have believed for over 250 years," he says, "it would have been because of a navigation error because the Casquets were far south of where the ship should have been. Since it obviously foundered in deep water, with a very experienced crew it was almost certainly the construction of the ship that caused the loss."
For Admiral Balchin's descendants, the discovery comes as a wonderful surprise and vindication. "For 12 generations we have wondered what really happened," says Sir Robert Balchin. "This astonishing find has brought it all back to life for us."
Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however. Dr. Jon Adams, director of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Southampton worries that site preservation and scientific knowledge will be sacrificed in Odyssey's quest to unearth valuables. "I don't think they're the best people to be conducting this retrieval," he says. "They're in business to make money from what they find beneath the sea. They're basically treasure hunters."
Odyssey defends itself against those charges by noting that it hires experienced archaeologists for its expeditions, and observing that only commercial archeology has the resources to carry out expensive, time-consuming exploration. As for treasure, well, thus far the only booty recovered from the Victory are two cannon, including a historically valuable 42-pounder etched with the crest of George I. But according to one contemporary newspapers account, there was £400,000 of gold on board, not an unusual amount in a time when warships acted as the Brinks armored trucks of their day.
That gold could prove controversial. In 2002, Odyssey negotiated an agreement with the British government to share the value of any retrieved artifacts from a shipwreck believed to be the HMS Sussex. At the time, historians and archaeologists were outraged that the 'spoils' from the historically significant site would be divided and put in private hands, an outrage only increased by Odyssey's practice of selling artifacts individually in order to fund its expeditions. Noting that every coin is carefully catalogued so that no information is lost, Stemm defends the practice. "Selling these coins to pay for the archaeology and to save these shipwrecks from destruction is much better than asking taxpayers to foot the bill."
This time around, Odyssey again expects the British government to see things the same way, and is currently negotiating with the country's Ministry of Defence. But because Britain in 2005 adopted UNESCO's patrimony guidelines as 'best practice,' a Sussex-style agreement would come loaded with inherent conflict. "There's the problem, isn't it?" says Sarah Dromgoole, professor of maritime law at the University of Nottingham. "They should ensure that any agreement is in compliance with UNESCO guidelines, and that includes ensuring that a cultural heritage site is maintained intact."
That may be why Odyssey is hedging its bets this time around. In a press release, the company notes that the U.K. would retain the right to maintain intact any collection of artifacts, and may compensate the finders not with actual booty, but with payment for their value. James Goold, the attorney representing the Spanish government, finds the change interesting. "From my point of view, Odyssey is admitting what it knew all along but ignored in the case of Spain, which is that it can't claim sovereignty over a sovereign nation's possessions. Maybe they've learned a lesson."
Still, even if the gold controversy is resolved, the Victory presents one more twist that the Mercedes, at least so far, has not: Odyssey has discovered human remains at the site. In compliance with UNESCO guidelines that urge respect for gravesites, the company says its robotic diver re-buried the unearthed bones. Yet Sir Robert Balchin hopes they don't stay that way. "My own view is that the human remains should be brought up and properly buried on land," the Admiral's descendant says. "I think it's what John Balchin would have wanted."
As for his own interests, Sir Robert says he has none beyond preserving the memory of his ancestor, and would turn over any of the Admiral's belongings that might be recovered to a museum. "Of course," he adds thoughtfully, "if they wanted to give me a small bit of wood from the hull, I should be thrilled."