HMS Victory 1744 Wiki Commons
For over two hundred and fifty years since she sank in a storm in October 1744, the wreck of historic Royal Navy Warship HMS Victory and the remains of over one thousand Royal Navy sailors, including her Commander, Admiral Sir John Balchen, were protected by the cold waters of the English Channel and the International Law of “Sovereign Immunity” which made it illegal to touch or take any part of the wreck or its contents without the express permission of the British Government. However, in the latest twist to the HMS Victory saga a senior official of the Ministry of Defence has admitted that the remains of the ship and her crew were gifted to a brand new charity, chaired by a senior Conservative Peer, which the MOD knew did not have the legal or financial resources to protect the ship from predatory salvage companies.
Heritage Daily has learned that in January 2012 the Cameron Government and in particular Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, knowingly threw away the protection offered by Sovereign Immunity and left the wreck of HMS Victory and her crew to the mercy of commercial salvage companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. of Tampa Florida which found the Victory in May 2008 and which is seeking to exploit the wreck to make money for its investors.
This appalling misjudgement is revealed in a letter from the Deputy Command Secretary at Navy Command Portsmouth, Mr Simon Routh.
Writing to the independent experts of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC], Mr Routh admitted that the Ministry of Defence handed the wreck over to the Maritime Heritage Foundation; a charity chaired by Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield, before the charity had developed the level of financial resources required to protect the remains of HMS Victory and her crew from unscrupulous commercial salvors in the Courts.
• That it was up to Lord Lingfield’s penniless charity “As owner of the wreck…to avail itself of all the legal avenues open to it [to protect the wreck]“.
• “… newly-formed body and it was recognised that it would require time to establish itself, develop income streams and to build capacity”
In effect, since the charity has yet to develop any income streams or resources which are independent of its commercial partner, which happens to be Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc, the Ministry knowingly left HMS Victory defenceless in the face of anyone who wishes to make money from the remains of the ship and her crew, because the charity would have to absorb huge legal costs to protect the wreck in the UK Courts and potentially also abroad.
It is not as if Mr Routh and the Ministry of Defence were not warned what was likely to happen once the Maritime Heritage Foundation took over responsibility for the ship.
Having had the existence of the site confirmed by Odyssey at a lavish Press Conference at Canary Wharf in February 2009 and with the wreck’s location confirmed by the presence of the company flagship the Odyssey Explorer working on the site, it was no surprise when a Dutch Salvage vessel illegally lifted a cannon from the HMS Victory wreck site in the Autumn of 2011.
As Heritage Daily revealed recently, an e-mail released under the Freedom of Information Act shows Lord Lingfield telephoned Mr Routh as soon as the theft was discovered and explained that the Chief Executive Officer of Odyssey, Mr Greg Stemm, was furious at what he claimed was a theft from his site and was threatening the Dutch salvors with legal action under what he claimed were his rights as “salvor in possession.”
This was a legal nonsense because at this point the Ministry of Defence and Mr Routh still had full responsibility for HMS Victory her crew and contents under International Law and, as the Ministry of Defence has acknowledged, Odyssey could not legally have been “salvor in possession” of a Crown wreck entitled to sovereign immunity. However, instead of telling Odyssey mind its own business and instructing Government Lawyers to start proceedings against the Dutch salvors, Mr Routh decided to keep the matter quiet and asked Lord Lingfield to “rein in” Mr Stemm while he undertook to sort out the issue through contacts.
The Ministry of Defence’s apparently uncaring attitude and attempts to sort out back channel deals on the quiet is in stark contrast to the very public actions taken by the Spanish Government to protect its rights and its lost ships and sailors, when Odyssey illegally removed over seventeen tons of silver coins from what it knew to be the wreck of the Spanish warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
In spite of Odyssey flying the coins to Florida via Gibraltar to place the treasure under the jurisdiction of the US Courts, the Spanish Government immediately took on Odyssey and, in spite of the increasingly desperate arguments placed by Odyssey’s legal team which extended to arguing there was no shipwreck on the Mercedes site in spite of the fact Odyssey had originally announced that there was and that the company had recovered parts of the ship as well as the coins, the coins were all returned to Spain in February 2012.
Odyssey received no compensation [except for the value of the plastic buckets it kept the coins in].
It seems that for Mr Routh and the Ministry of Defence, HMS Victory isn’t even worth the price of a plastic bucket, as critics argue the Ministry is clearly more concerned with saving money and not upsetting its cosy relationship with Odyssey Marine Exploration and Lord Lingfield; a senior member of the Conservative Party and associate of Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt and Prime Minister David Cameron; than with defending the rights of Great Britain over one of its most famous warships and the remains of her crew.
HMS Victory was gifted to the Maritime Heritage Foundation in January and almost immediately, Lord Lingfield proceeded to demonstrate Mr Routh was right and the Foundation had no capacity to assert its legal rights and duties. A letter released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that on 7February 2012 Lord Lingfield asked Mr Routh what steps he should take to recover the stolen cannon for the Maritime Heritage Foundation.
Meanwhile the cannon remains the property of the British Government and it is understood to be occupying a tank of water in Holland. Negotiations are believed to be still under way regarding its repatriation.