Saturday, November 19, 2005

 

Filmmaker wants to protect what could be fabled vessel from War of 1812

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Brandon Sun
November 16, 2005



HALIFAX - A Canadian filmmaker is seeking a permit from the Nova Scotia government to protect the remains of a sunken brigantine believed to be loaded with American loot after British troops raided and burned the White House during the War of 1812.

HMS Fantome, now thought to be resting on a shallow shoal off the coast of Prospect, N.S., is in danger of being picked apart by treasure hunters interested in profiting from historical treasures, says documentary producer John Chisholm.

"If licensed treasure hunters are taking away artifacts looted from the White House, I think it's a borderline international incident," Chisholm, president of Halifax-based Arcadia Entertainment, said in an interview Wednesday.

"I don't think they should do it."

Chisholm, who wants to make a documentary about the little-known shipwreck and its fabled involvement in the Washington fires, wants the province to revoke a licence given to an American company that has recently explored the site and recovered items from it.

Tim Dunne of Natural Resources said the province doesn't plan on changing the legislation governing shipwrecks and other historical sites.

Chisholm has filed for a heritage research permit that would allow him to survey the area to try to determine exactly what's on the ocean floor and if it is even the site of the fabled vessel.

He became interested in it after spotting a dive team assembling their gear in preparation for an expedition. After doing some research, he discovered the province had issued treasure trove and research permits to explore a wreck he says could hold significant historical value to both Canadians and Americans.

"I just think that this is a moment in history that's not discussed very much," he said.

"The War of 1812 everyone knows, but the chapter where the British and Canadians went down and burned the capital of the United States is an interesting story that you don't hear much about."

On Aug. 24, 1814, British and Canadian troops arrived in the American capital, easily routing their enemy, who fled while the invading army looted and then torched the president's house, the capital and all other public buildings.

The substantial haul was loaded on to a handful of boats that set sail for Halifax, a busy British garrison at the time.

The Fantome, which headed the convoy, ran into a vicious storm on Nov. 24 and was thought to have gone down after accidentally heading into a dangerous shoal off Prospect.

"It's like a classic treasure story," said Chisholm. "I knew nothing about it. It's just one of those really obscure stories. There are maybe 5,000 wrecks on the coast of Nova Scotia and lots of them just drop off the history books."

Archeologists have yet to determine whether the Fantome has actually been found, but David Christianson of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History says it seems likely that the vessel in question dates back to that time.

"I am convinced from the findings that they do have a vessel from that period and that it's a British military vessel, but we don't have that categorical identification," said Christianson, who issued a permit to the American company that dove on the wreck.

"If it is the Fantome, it certainly is significant to our history."

According to a preliminary report by Le Chameau Explorations Ltd., the company which holds the permits to explore the site, divers recovered cannon and musket shot, copper buttons bearing the Royal Navy symbol, pottery, tools, and ships' nails and bolts.

Divers also recovered copper sheathing, embossed with a distinctive English marking that indicates military or Crown property.

Under provincial law, a company can retain items that are deemed to be treasures, but must pay a 10 per cent royalty on them. Any artifacts recovered from a site must be handed over to the museum.

Curtis Sprouse of Sovereign Exploration Associates Inc., a holding company under Le Chameau, said anything it does recover and is allowed to keep could be sold privately or to a museum.

He dismissed the argument that private interests are destroying vital historical sites, claiming that many wrecks would probably go undiscovered if it weren't for companies like his which can afford to launch the costly missions.

"If you do not have the ability to undertake this sort of activity, you would not have opportunity to determine whether history was correct or not in the accounting of a particular event," he said from his office in Wakefield, Mass.


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