Loss of HMS Victory 1744 : Wiki Commons
The plan for American treasure hunting salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, to salvage the wreck of HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchen lost in a storm with all hands in October 1744 has been dealt two fresh blows.
Odyssey is already beset by questions over the nature and terms of the commercial salvage contract the Florida based company has entered into with the wrecks owner, British charity the Maritime Heritage Foundation. The company and its UK PR representatives the Brunswick Group have also faced accusations, reported by Heritage Daily, that a recent attack on English Heritage over its treatment of the HMS Victory site in the Sunday Times was designed as an attempt to intimidate or discredit that organisation, the UK Government’s statutory advisor on heritage matters, in advance of a government decision on how to proceed with the management of the Victory wreck site.
Now Odyssey now finds that its moral authority to work on the site, which is the grave and memorial to over a thousand Royal Navy sailors and the authority and competence of the final arbiters of any work on the site, the Ministry of Defence, are both under severe question. In fact some authoritative sources go so far as to suggest that work on the site will have to be suspended by the Cameron Government pending a full review of the nature of the Maritime Heritage Foundation’s financial resources- or rather the lack of them.
This new crisis for Odyssey has come about because, in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC], the Ministry of Defence has been forced to admit that it has no record that its officials made any attempt to establish what financial resources were available to the Maritime Heritage Foundation to undertake the HMS Victory Project prior to the ship being “gifted” to the Foundation earlier this year.
This failure of the Ministry of Defence to undertake what is basic “due diligence” regarding the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which is chaired by senior Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield, is critical because the British Government has repeatedly stated that the Annex to the 2001 “UNESCO Convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage” represents British policy for the treatment of historic wrecks. Rule 17 of the UNESCO Annex states that, except in an emergency, adequate funding to see a project through to completion must be shown to be in place before any work is allowed to start.
Although the salvage company has consistently argued, based on its own surveys, that the site is under threat from damage by trawlers and other commercial salvors, at no stage has Odyssey, or the Maritime Heritage Foundation, argued that this represents an emergency in the terms of the UNESCO Annex. It follows that the Ministry of Defence has failed to follow the government’s own stated policy and thus it is argued by the JNAPC and others, that work on the wreck site must be suspended until the Foundation can prove it has the independent financial means to complete what is bound to be a sensitive and expensive project on an internationally important shipwreck site.
Estimates for the cost of the salvage planned by Odyssey are as high as £20 million and current indications are that the Maritime Heritage Foundation actually has no independent financial resources at all. In fact, with the company flagship, Odyssey Explorer, authorised to undertake non-invasive work at the site, it appears the Foundation may be stacking up hundreds thousands of pounds worth of debts to Odyssey under its salvage contract. Debts which Odyssey hopes will be paid off in cash- which the Foundation does not have; or through the sale of artifacts such as the bronze guns Victory carried, which is not allowed under the terms of the UNESCO Annex.
As if that was not enough bad news for Odyssey and its stockholders, who have been repeatedly told that HMS Victory would be “monetised” starting in the Summer of 2012, the 23 June edition of the Times newspaper saw the publication of a letter from Mr Richard Temple West, a direct descendent of Admiral Sir John Balchen who was lost in the Victory sinking.
After stating that he had been following the fate of the Victory with “increasing dismay,” Mr Temple West expressed concern that the decisions about HMS Victory were being made behind closed doors with scant regard for the site’s status as the grave and memorial to over 1000 mariners, including his ancestor, Sir John Balchen.
Mr Temple West stated his family recognised the historical importance of HMS Victory and for that reason asked that any investigation of the site should be led by expert archaeologists with no financial interest in the results and be carried out for the benefit of the people of the UK.
He concluded his letter with a devastating critique of what many see as the motivation behind the Odyssey/Maritime Heritage Foundation project…
“Most important of all, my ancestor’s grave must not be used by advertising men to pretend that the profit-seeking activities of a treasure hunting company are archaeology done in the public interest.”
Mr Temple West’s intervention undermines the key plank of Odysseys public relations strategy, maintained since the announcement of the finding of HMS Victory in February 2009, which has been to suggest that the descendants of Admiral Balchen support their plan.
Odyssey has been able to do this because of the association of the project with Lord Lingfield. At the time of the February 2009 announcement and press conference, Lord Lingfield was still plain Sir Robert Balchin and he was introduced as a “descendant” of the Admiral in Odyssey’s Press Release; a claim which was then repeated in the press conference and in a television interview with Fox Business.
Heritage Daily now understands that the precise family relationship between Lord Lingfield and Admiral Balchen is almost certainly much more distant. That is if it exists at all. This of course raises the question as to why the claim of direct kinship was made by Odyssey in its press release in the first place?
In the meantime, whatever Lord Lingfield’s precise relationship with the historical Admiral Sir John Balchen, direct descendants of the Admiral clearly see the plans of Odyssey and Lord Lingfield’s Foundation to mount a for-profit salvage of the shipwreck as little better than grave robbing.