Thursday, January 05, 2006

 

Storm brews over treasures sunk in 1814

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The Globe and Mail
By Jane Armstrong
January 02, 2006


Historical artifacts at risk if U.S. firm digs up N.S. wreck for profit, critics say

HALIFAX -- A U.S. treasure hunter's bid to scavenge a famed War of 1812-era shipwreck off the coast of Nova Scotia has met a storm of protest from underwater experts, who say the province's rich maritime history is being pillaged by modern-day pirates.

HMS Fantome was laden with loot believed to have been stolen from Washington -- including from the White House and Capitol building -- when it ran aground on a treacherous shoal south of Halifax in November, 1814. The crew of the British naval vessel survived, but its cargo was lost to the stormy sea.

Now, a Pennsylvania-based treasure hunter has obtained a licence from the Nova Scotia government to excavate what is believed to be the wreck site, a move that has angered divers and underwater archeologists who say the ship's bounty could include priceless historical artifacts, which should not be sold for profit.

"If these international treasure hunters, in co-operation or under the auspices of the Nova Scotia government, started coming up with silverware from the White House and selling it . . . I would think we would have an international incident on our hands," said Halifax filmmaker John Wesley Chisholm, who is leading a campaign to repeal Nova Scotia's Treasure Trove Act, which allows for underwater treasure hunting.

Nova Scotia is the only province that permits the private sector to mine sunken ships for their potential treasures. Around the world, there is a growing movement to halt treasure hunting, said Mr. Chisholm, who intends to film a documentary about the site. Critics say sunken shipwrecks should be treated with the same care as above-ground archeological sites, such as Greek and Roman ruins.

By permitting treasure hunters to scavenge the Fantome site, Mr. Chisholm argued, it's possible that stolen White House valuables could wind up on e-Bay.

In mid-December, the U.S. State Department and the Smithsonian Institution weighed in, warning that if the wreck site does contain American artifacts, they should be returned to the U.S. government.

"We would want to work with both Canada and the U.K. to see those artifacts returned to us," said a State Department spokesman, who asked not to be identified. He said the U.S.
government was drafting a letter to Ottawa saying the Fantome's contents shouldn't be mined by private interests.

Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution, agreed. "Obviously the historical value would be immeasurable," Mr. Johnston said. "We certainly did not give up title to those objects that were removed by the British fleet."

A number of European countries and the United States forbid the salvaging of sunken warships without the consent of the country for which the ship sailed.

Divers and underwater archeologists interviewed say Nova Scotia's lax laws lure underwater gold-diggers to the province. They say the same law that fails to protect shipwrecks leaves modern disaster sites equally vulnerable, namely the Swissair crash site off Peggy's Cove, just a few kilometres from where the Fantome sank.

Already, three applicants have asked permission to excavate the Swissair debris site, including the London insurer Lloyds. The passenger jet, which crashed off Peggy's Cove in 1998, killing 229 passengers, was carrying millions of dollars worth of diamonds, gold and bank notes. All three applications have been turned down, said Tim Dunne, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Ministry, which is responsible for the treasure act.

Mr. Dunne said the province has no plans to change the treasure law, noting that when these valuables were first lost, they were private -- not public property. It's believed as many as 10,000 shipwrecks are lying on the ocean floor off the province's rocky, reef-ridden coast.

Unearthing the Fantome, whose demise is already shrouded in mystery, has been likened to hitting the archeological motherlode because the cargo could have both historical and financial value.

The British raid on Washington in the final months of the War of 1812 was a humiliating moment in U.S. history. Invading British and Canadian soldiers easily defeated American soldiers, then set fire to the city after ransacking the White House and Capitol building.

Nearly 200 years later, one of Canada's top underwater archeologists said the Fantome site should be protected.

"Every country in the world protects the cultural heritage of its land," said Robert Grenier, head of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada. "I cannot go to Nova Scotia with my shovel and my trowel and dig holes under an archeological site. I will be arrested and I will be threatened under law. So, why are some countries or some states or some provinces allowing this to happen [underwater]. What is the difference? This heritage underwater is as important.

"A shipwreck is a time capsule," he said in a telephone interview from Ottawa. "A shipwreck is the stoppage of time. It's a fantastic legacy we can leave if they are well preserved and well handled."

The founder of the holding company searching the Fantome site dismissed criticism that his company was looting Nova Scotia's underwater history.

Curtis Sprouse, the CEO of Sovereign Exploration Associates International, said treasure hunters, who finance the costly excavations with money from investors, unearth far more shipwrecks than publicly funded salvage operations. Their reputation as modern-day pirates is unfair, he said.

Mr. Sprouse rejected suggestions he intends to sell historical artifacts to the highest bidder if the shipwreck proves to be the Fantome. He plans to work with museums.

Under Nova Scotia law, private hunters can keep treasures found beneath the sea, but must pay a 10 per cent royalty to the province. The act also requires treasure hunters to work with an archeologist and to hand over non-valuable artifacts to the province.

So far, there's no proof that the site Mr. Sprouse's team is excavating is where the Fantome broke apart. The waters there, dubbed by locals as the Fantome Fangs, contain house-sized boulders that have smashed the ship to bits.

Nor is there any proof that the stolen White House treasures were loaded onto the Fantome. The plunder was put aboard a convoy of British ships, which many believe set sail for Halifax.

However, some historians said the Fantome was in Maine at the time.


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