HMS Victory Treasure Hunters Find Legendary English Warship

For 250 years, the powerful English warship HMS Victory was lost, the victim of a 1744 storm in the English Channel. Now, treasure hunters have located the wreck. Unique cannon have been recovered -- but four tons of gold may still lie hidden.

By in London

The ship was the pride of the Royal Navy. As big as a building, the three-masted triple-decker was 53 meters (173 feet) long and bristled with 100 cannon. But on Oct. 5, 1744, the HMS Victory sailed into a violent autumn storm in the English Channel on the way home from Gibraltar. Sir John Balchin, the Royal Navy's second-in-command captained the flagship.

Admiral Balchin had been serving the crown at sea for 58 years; he was an experienced hand. But the 2,000 ton HMS Victory never made it back to its home in Portsmouth. On that October day, the ship disappeared along with all 1,100 men on board -- and four tons of gold. At the time, it was the biggest warship in the world; and for England, its loss was a national tragedy. In memory of the accident and its victims, a marble sarcophagus was placed in Westminster Abbey.

The only remains from the HMS Victory were small bits of the wreck that washed up periodically on the shores of the Channel Islands. But for the last 250 years, the vessel's whereabouts have remained a mystery.

Until now.

In a secret operation over the course of many months, the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration has managed to locate the sunken ship 100 meters (328 feet) below the surface of the English Channel. Following 23 dives made between May and October, 2008, there is now "no doubt" that the wreck is indeed the HMS Victory, according to the 46-page report detailing the successful search. Company founder Greg Stemm officially confirmed the find in the Canary Wharf Four Seasons Hotel on Monday. "From an archaeological and historical perspective," Stemm said, "this is probably the most significant shipwreck find to date."

Site 25C

Stemm declined to publicize the exact coordinates of his company's find. Out of fear that others could plunder the site, the company refers to it only as "Site 25C." According to the report, the site covers an area of 16 by 21 meters (53 by 69 feet) in which 41 bronze cannon have been found, including eight enormous 42-pounders. Most of the cannon lie parallel to the ship's keel after having been displaced by modern fishing nets. In addition to the cannon -- and a layer of more modern refuse, including plastic bags, glass bottles and a video cassette -- the team found other remnants from the 18th century, including a copper kettle, two anchors and the ship's 10-meter-long rudder. By digging in the sand on the channel floor, Odyssey hopes that it can find the rest of the 100-110 cannon thought to have been aboard the ship.

And then there is the matter of the four tons of gold coins. According to contemporary accounts, the HMS Victory was on its way from Gibraltar to Portsmouth via Lisbon, where it anchored to take on 400,000 pounds Sterling, most likely in the form of 100,000 gold coins. Balchin is also said to have plundered a number of French merchant ships on the voyage, set to be the last before his retirement.

For underwater archaeologists, the find is a sensation. The treasure hunters used a remote control robot to raise two of the bronze cannon -- a 12 pounder and a 42 pounder. One of the cannon bears the coat of arms of King George I, the other of King George II. The manufacture dates of 1726 and 1734 match up well with the timeframe of HMS Victory's construction. It was the Royal Navy's last large warship to be outfitted with bronze cannon before the switch to cast iron was made.

Odyssey was careful to get the permission of the British Ministry of Defence before salvaging the cannon. As a warship, the vessel still belongs to the state, despite the fact that it was found in international waters. The careful attention to diplomacy is no doubt a lesson learned from past underwater archaeological expeditions.

Indeed, Odyssey itself is no stranger to controversy. The company has been battling the Spanish government for a long time now over the HMS Sussex, which sank off Gibraltar in 1694. Odyssey discovered the wreck -- thought to have billions of dollars worth of treasure on board -- in 2006, but has yet to begin its salvaging operations. The Spanish government has proven unwilling to allow the project to go forward, so it has been in limbo ever since.

In 2007, a second operation off the coast of Spain involving a ship code-named "Black Swan" was only partially successful. Odyssey secretly recovered hundreds of thousands of coins and managed to fly them to the US. But Spain has claimed the rights to the treasure, and the case is currently before an American court.

Good News for Stockholders

The case has been a difficult one for Odyseey -- the company is publicly traded and the value of its stock had been dropping as a result of "Black Swan." Now, the discovery of the HMS Victory could provide a much-needed boost for the company. Even if the fortune in gold is not found, there is still money to be made from the story of the legendary wreck. The Discovery Channel is already filming a multipart television series called "Treasure Quest."

Odyssey is also holding talks with the British government aimed at determining how the treasures should be retrieved from the English Channel and divvied up. Odyssey has envisioned a partnership agreement whereby the company would assume responsibility for the professional salvaging and conservation of the entire site in return for a guaranteed percentage of its total value.

But when it comes to guarantees, the only sure-fire one is that more lawsuits are on the horizon for Odyssey. Mike Williams, a law lecturer at Wolverhampton University and member of the Nautical Archaeology Society, told Britain's Observer newspaper that he predicts there will be a public outcry if the government agrees to hand over salvaging operations to the deep-sea treasure hunters. Underwater archaeologists have always looked on treasure hunters with suspicion. In their opinion, they are basically only interested in material wealth and, in the process of searching for it, they have no problem with destroying valuable cultural artifacts -- to say nothing of disturbing the peace of the dead.

"More Experience Than Anyone Else in the World"

The remotely operated diver Zeus has already retrieved rib bones and skull fragments from the area surrounding the wreckage of the HMS Victory. But Stemm and his team are vociferous in rejecting accusations that they lack professionalism. "We use best practice archaeological techniques and have more experience at deep-ocean archaeological excavations than anyone else in the world," says Neil Cunningham Dobson, the chief underwater archaeologist on board the Odyssey Explorer research vessel.

In response to the purists, the treasure hunters claim that, were it not for Odyssey's equipment and financial resources, such wrecks would rot away unnoticed and be gradually worn away by fishermen's dragnets. As Stemm sees it, leaving wrecks on the ocean floor is just "irresponsible."

Indeed, the treasure hunters also see themselves as fellow researchers. They are, for example, inspired with a scholarly passion by the 3.4-meter (11-foot) 42-pounder they recovered and now keep at their maritime base in Portsmouth. It is believed to be the only naval cannon of its size in the world. "When the team first measured these big guns underwater, they let out a collective gasp at their enormity and magnificence," says Sean Kingsley, one of Odyssey's underwater archaeologists. "Nothing like this has been seen before anywhere in the world." The significance of the find if for an underwater archaeologists is like the discovery of a new dinosaur species for a paleontologist.

One for the History Books

The find also means that history books will now have to be revised. The ship's wreckage is more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from where historical accounts say the Victory sank. Until now, historians had assumed that -- like so many hundreds of other ships -- the HMS Victory had broken up on the Casquets, a group of rocks west of Alderney, the most northerly of the Channel Islands, which is known as the "graveyard of the English Channel." The fact that the vessel has been found in the open sea will help to rehabilitate the reputations of Admiral Balchin and the lighthouse keepers of the Casquets, who have always shared the blame for the ship's watery demise.

The authors of the preliminary report now attribute the actual cause of the wreck to a flaw in the ship's construction: "In the final analysis," says the report, "the height-to-width ratio of Victory may have directly been responsible for her downfall." According to this hypothesis, the mighty ship could simply keel over if battered by high waves. The report also points out that contemporary British shipbuilders might not have properly stored the timber they used to construct vessels, which in turn might have condemned a generation of warships to be constructed, at least in part, out of rotten wood.

These shortcomings were only overcome in the next generation of ships. One of these was the HMS Victory, the next British warship to bear the name, which is one of the most storied warships of all times. In 1805, it was the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar. Today it can be found in dry dock in Portsmouth as a perfectly restored museum ship.


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