Archaeology Featured Underwater

Possible new restrictions on Victory Salvage

Odyssey Explorer deploying equipment over the HMS Victory site Copyright Astrid Harrisson 2012

Ministers are considering placing further restrictions on Odyssey Marine Exploration and the Maritime Heritage Foundation as pressure builds on the Cameron Government to stop the Banks and Hedge Fund investors backing Odyssey profiting from the grave and property of lost Royal Navy sailors.

Heritage Daily has seen a letter from Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence Andrew Robathan MP dated 3rd September 2012, which confirms that the Ministry of Defence is considering placing even more restrictions on the attempt by Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. to carry out the commercial salvage of the historic Royal Navy shipwreck and grave site of the second HMS Victory.

HMS Victory, the predecessor of Nelson’s flagship of the same name, was the largest warship in the world when she sank with all hands in a storm in the English Channel west of Alderney in October 1744.  If imposed, the new restrictions would relate specifically to the presence of the remains of Royal Navy sailors on the site and would come as a response to a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron from Mr Richard West, a direct descendant of Admiral Sir John Balchen, the Admiral on board HMS Victory when she sank.  In the letter, which Heritage Daily has also seen, Mr West expresses deep concern at the commercial nature of the HMS Victory project and the message that allowing foreign investors to profit from the property, grave and memorial of Royal Navy personnel would send to the world.

Richard West courtesy the West Family Copyright

Mr West was prompted to send his letter after the Deputy Command Secretary of Navy Command in Portsmouth, Mr Simon Routh, admitted in August that Odyssey has been working throughout June, July and early August on active preparations to recover material from the wreck of HMS Victory.  Mr Routh’s admission came in spite of a Parliamentary Written Answer, also given by Mr Robathan, which confirmed that there are no agreements in place between Odyssey, the Maritime Heritage Foundation and the Ministry of Defence, regarding the treatment of any human remains which might be uncovered on the site.


Odyssey is being employed under a commercial salvage contract awarded by the charity, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which is chaired by senior Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield.  Sir Robert Balchin Lord Lingfield, is a close political associate of Mr Cameron [who made him a Life Peer in December 2010] as well as former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and new Culture Secretary Maria Miller, through his involvement in Party administration and policy making. He is a former Chair of the Conservative Party’s South East Region and has been instrumental in framing Conservative Education Policy including that on Free Schools and children with Special Educational Needs, since the days of the Major Government in the 1990’s.

Heritage Daily also understands that the preparations for the recovery of artefacts have gone ahead, even though the Deed of Gift of HMS Victory to the Maritime Heritage Foundation also forbids “disturbance” of the site without explicit Ministerial consent.  A position restated by Mr Robathan in his letter to Mr West.

In his letter to Prime Minister Cameron, which was also copied to the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of his Liberal Democrat coalition partners Nick Clegg, as well as to senior Ministers and Officials including the Culture Secretary, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope, Mr West expresses his family’s “extreme distress” that Odyssey have defied the stated wishes of the British Government and prepared artefacts for recovery; actions which may constitute unauthorised disturbance of the HMS Victory site, without the required permission from the Secretary of State for Defence being granted.

If the recovery of material from the wreck is ultimately permitted by Ministers, the contract with the Maritime Heritage Foundation will see the charity required to pay the Florida based company its salvage costs in full.  In addition the charity would then be required to pay Odyssey commercial rates of commission which would realise 50% of the value of the ships fittings and cannon and 80% of the commercial value of any personal property belonging to members of the crew as pure profit. This would itself be a breach of stated UK heritage policy, which requires compliance with the Annex to the 2001 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Annex forbids the commercial exploitation of material from archaeological wreck sites.

The sums involved are potentially substantial.  Odyssey has announced it has located up to 50 bronze cannon, some weighing as much as four tons, on the HMS Victory site.  These have a combined value at least half a million pounds on the international metals market and potentially much more to collectors.  A single 24 pounder bronze cannon from HMS Association sold for £55,000 in 2009 and taking that as an average just the declared cannon from HMS Victory would be worth at least £2.75 million.  That is probably a conservative estimate.  Some of HMS Victory’s guns, such as the huge 42 pounder cannon cast, like the rest of the ship’s battery of 100 guns, by Master Gun Founder Andrew Schalch at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, are unique and would be much in demand from collectors and museums all over the world.

Mr West and his family regard this brazen commercialisation of what they regard as a military grave, as anathema, telling Mr Cameron…

“The thought of one’s ancestor’s personal processions, being sold for profit, is regarded by us as utterly unethical and in moral terms the equivalent of grave robbing from the last resting place of the brave servicemen, who died on the Victory.”

The letter goes on to observe that Odyssey’s preparations have almost certainly uncovered the remains of at least some of the over one thousand Royal Navy personnel lost when the ship sank in a storm in October 1744 and which were reported by the company when it located the wreck in 2008.  This assertion is regarded as credible by independent experts in marine archaeology who also believe, based on Mr Routh’s admission and knowledge of Odyssey’s previous work, that the Odyssey Explorer’s activities on the site could have included disturbance of the sea bed around and under the cannon to place lifting strops.  It is thought likely that Odyssey would be most keen to locate the senior officers’ quarters at the stern of the ship where valuables, including personal plate and money, would be most likely to be kept.

Odyssey has always claimed that there is the potential for a large cargo of bullion on board the Victory although independent scholars and even the Ministry of Defence, believe that possibility is a remote one based on overreliance on a single indirect source, a Dutch newspaper reporting a rumour some weeks after the sinking.

Given the sensitivities of the site as a military grave and as an important historical wreck with the potential to reveal much about the wooden world of the 18th century Royal Navy, the mainstream archaeological community has repeatedly reminded the Ministry of Defence and DCMS of the need to verify independently the nature of the apparently unauthorised preparatory work Odyssey has undertaken.  This is because there have been no observers from either the Ministry of Defence or English Heritage on board the salvage vessel, the Odyssey Explorer, to ensure work on HMS Victory is conducted in an appropriate manner according to archaeological priorities and to an archaeological, rather than a commercial, time table.

This intervention regarding the potential treatment of the remains of HMS Victory’s crew is only the latest of the issues to beset the efforts of the Maritime Heritage Foundation and Odyssey to recover archaeological material from the HMS Victory wreck site on a commercial basis.  Neither is it the first intervention by Mr West.

Mr West himself wrote to “the Times” newspaper in June this year to express dismay that the site was about to be exploited commercially and later issued a statement expressing anger that Odyssey had issued a press release in February 2009 which presented Sir Robert Balchin, the chair of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, as a direct descendent of Admiral Balchen of HMS Victory when that was demonstrably not true.  Odyssey even changed the historical spelling of the Admiral’s name “Balchen” and instead uses the spelling “Balchin” used by Lord Lingfield in all its documentation.

Then on 15 August, the Marine Management Organisation [MMO] confirmed to Heritage Daily that Odyssey and the Maritime Heritage Foundation had been contacted by the MMO Marine Licensing Team to ensure that the licensing requirements of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 [MCAA] had been complied with over the seabed work on the Victory site.  Failure to comply with the MCAA can lead to a fine of up to £50,000 and imprisonment for up to two years and the outcome of the MMO’s contacts is awaited.  However, Heritage Daily understands from several sources that there is no record of an application for a licence for the HMS Victory site prior to the latest work taking place and it would appear that any disturbance undertaken by the Odyssey Explorer was in breach of the MCAA.

However, regardless of the very serious licensing issues, it is the ethical and archaeologically responsible treatment of the remains of HMS Victory’s crew which is probably the most sensitive and emotive issue currently facing the entire Odyssey/Maritime Heritage Foundation Project.

If the wreck of HMS Victory were to be surveyed and excavated by mainstream maritime archaeologists there would be no need to add additional conditions regarding human remains.  The work would be undertaken at cost and in compliance with strict, published legal and ethical guidelines on the treatment of human remains in UK archaeology which ensure accountability and transparency.  There would certainly be no question of any material from the wreck, however valuable it might be in financial terms on the commercial collectors market, being sold to cover costs, let alone sold for the private profit of the Banks and Hedge Funds, who have invested in Odyssey Marine Exploration.

In that context Odyssey’s habitual secrecy, the questions over the archaeological abilities and experience of the Maritime Heritage Foundation which have been extensively reported by Heritage Daily and the lack of transparency of the Odyssey/MHF Project because it involves two private organisations which are not subject to either statutory scrutiny or the Freedom of Information Act, ensures that the HMS Victory salvage project faces a serious problem of perception.

Certainly, if the perception that Odyssey’s priority is to lift saleable artefacts such as the cannon from the grave and memorial to over 1000 Royal Navy personnel were to become established in the public mind, the result could be toxic as far as any Government backing is concerned and would be potentially lethal towards the whole HMS Victory project.

This would be a major issue for Odyssey because, in the absence of any discernible financial resources on the part of the Maritime Heritage Foundation, funding Odyssey’s considerable costs in keeping the Odyssey Explorer on site for several months depends on the salvage company being able to sell material from the wreck on the commercial antiquities market.  Without the ability to lift and sell material from the site Odyssey would be facing a substantial loss on the HMS Victory project, probably running into several million dollars in sea time for the Odyssey Explorer and her crew alone.

This latest uncertainly even extends to the television coverage which Odyssey relies on to present its public face.  The Ministry of Defence has very strict rules regarding the depiction of casualties in the media, even those from as far back as World War One.  Now that direct relatives of Admiral Balchen of HMS Victory have come forward it remains to be seen whether this will affect the Television coverage of the HMS Victory project by JWM Productions for the series “Treasure Quest” shown on the Discovery Channel.

Heritage Daily understands that the West family expressed their disquiet to Odyssey at the depiction of human remains in earlier episodes of “Treasure Quest” filmed in 2008.  Now, while not opposing archaeology conducted in accordance with the Annex to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001, the British Government’s stated policy template for the proper treatment of historic shipwrecks, the West’s state…

“We do not wish to see our ancestor’s remains or his property used as free advertising for a company of commercial treasure hunters.”

Reacting to the West letter and Mr Robathan’s reply, the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee [JNAPC], which has led opposition to Odyssey’s attempts to exploit historic shipwrecks in contravention of UK Government policy and the UNESCO Convention commented…

“We welcome Mr Robathan’s statement that the Cameron Government is considering placing further restrictions on Odyssey;  this time with regard to the highly sensitive issue of the remains of HMS Victory’s Royal Navy crew.

However this latest concern about human remains on board the Victory simply re-affirms the need for an urgent, independent survey of the HMS Victory wreck site.  We need to know what the genuine state of the site is, the extent of the disturbance we now know has taken place and exactly what Lord Lingfield and the Maritime Heritage Foundation have allowed Odyssey to do.

The Salvage and Marine Operations section of the MoD has the capability to undertake this work at short notice and at next to no cost to the tax payer.  It just needs the MoD to task them to do it.”

In this Royal Jubilee year, with the UK still basking in the feel good factor brought on by a successful Olympic Games and with Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond himself questioning whether the Private Sector is always the best solution to the problems of Government, Prime Minister David Cameron must be aware of the acute political danger to his administration if Ministers are seen to allow the Banks and Hedge Funds backing Odyssey to make large profits from the private possessions and the disturbance of over a thousand lost Royal Navy personnel.

The West family certainly appreciate the risk to the Cameron Government as they conclude with this comment…

“We fear that if Odyssey is not stopped from selling the remains of a Royal Navy vessel and the possessions of her crew the reputation of your Government risks severe damage as the perception among the public and the international heritage community will be that even the remains and possessions of fallen British servicemen are for sale to the highest bidder which is against both international agreements and basic human decency, not to mention the Military Covenant.”

Written by Andy Brockman

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