A recent deep-sea survey in the English Channel has revealed that Britain’s maritime cultural heritage has been considerably damaged as a result of the activities of the fishing industry and is in danger of being lost, forever.
The Royal Navy warship HMS Victory was lost in 1744 with Admiral Sir John Balchin, 1,100 sailors and 110 cannon. HMS Victory boasted the biggest cannon used in naval warfare and the largest collection of bronze guns. The 22-gun Marquise de Tournay was launched from Bordeaux as a French privateer and was captured and sunk by the British in 1757, allegedly on its way back from North America and the Caribbean. The wreck of the Marquise de Tournay is the only wreck of an 18th-century merchant vessel trading with the Americas to have been found in European waters. A 30-metre long merchant vessel, with a cargo of elephant tusks, iron cannon and manilla bracelet currency, was also lost in the mid 17th century.
These wrecks are just three of the 267 shipwrecks discovered in the English Channel during the recent survey carried out by Odyssey Marine Exploration. Covering an area of 4,725 square nautical miles, the survey is the most extensive archaeological survey of the western English Channel and the Western approaches ever undertaken. 115 (43%) of the 267 shipwrecks displayed permanent damage caused by trawlers and scallop dredges used by the international fishing industry.
HMS Victory and the wreck of the Marquise de Tournay lie within the most heavily fished section of the survey region and the 17th-century merchant vessel has been severely damaged by scallop dredges. Its hull has been almost completely destroyed and only a very small amount of its original cargo remains. Damage is caused to shipwrecks when trawlers plough the upper 6-20cm of the seabed to extract scallops and catch flatfish in nets weighing up to eight tons. Fishing vessels also cut furrows into shipwrecks, loosening archaeological deposits and dragging artefacts away from the sites. As the wrecks are exposed to oxygen, their wooden structures are broken up and the artefacts are washed away by currents.
In an article published on the website of The Times, Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey Marine Exploration, described the damage caused to the wrecks:
‘When we got into this business, like everyone else we thought that beyond 50 or
60 metres, below the reach of divers, we’d find pristine shipwrecks. We thought
we’d be finding rainforest, but instead found an industrial site criss-crossed
by bulldozers and trucks.’
Dr Sean Kingsley, the Director of Wreck Watch International, a London based consultancy specialising in global maritime heritage, analysed the results of the survey. Ten key sites have been identified, which require further study, mapping, excavation and artefact recovery. The results of the project were published, yesterday, in a report which is available online http://www.shipwreck.net/publications.php
Odyssey’s study has been criticised, however, for overstating the damage caused to the shipwrecks. The Ministry of Defence has jurisdiction over warships’ remains and has asked English Heritage to carry out an assessment of threats to the site.
Throughout history the Channel has been of key strategic importance. It is estimated that the territorial waters of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and the Isles of Scilly alone contain 7,000 shipwrecks.
For a history of the Channel Tunnel, read our article The Channel Tunnel
Pictures (from top to bottom):
- 12-pounder bronze cannon recovered from the shipwreck site of HMS Victory, on the deck of the Odyssey Explorer. (Photo courtesy of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Inc. © 2008)