On Aug. 5, 1997, a legal adviser for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department signed a two-page document. Three days later, the British High Commissioner to Canada did the same.
The document specified what would happen if searchers ever discovered the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, the lost Royal Navy ships commanded by Sir John Franklin when he set out in 1845 on his doomed search for the Northwest Passage.
For 166 years that event remained an abstraction. Successive missions to find the two vessels, their crew and their captain turned up nothing more than scattered debris and bones.
Then on Tuesday the Prime Minister’s Office announced that a Canada-led mission had discovered one of the ships. Suddenly a century and half of searching has been supplanted by a new routine: the delicate diplomatic and technical dance involved in recovering one of the world’s most important shipwrecks.
Because the wrecks of Erebus and Terror are both British property and Canadian national historic sites, the the 1997 memorandum of understanding carefully lays out each country’s claims and responsibilities.
Britain retains ownership of the wrecks but has assigned “custody and control” to the Government of Canada.
That means Canadian archeologists get to lead the recovery mission, and Canada can keep everything taken from the wreck — with a few important exceptions.
Any gold found aboard must be split between Canada, the U.K. and any third party with a legal claim to it. And Britain gets to keep any artifacts of special historic significance to its Royal Navy, though it is also responsible for costs associated with bringing those artifacts home.