A good and just law for shipwreck heritage
By Dr Edward Harris - The Royal Gazette
‘Only a small part of what once existed was buried in the ground; only a part of what was buried has escaped the destroying hand of time; of this part all has not yet come to light again; and we know only too well how little of what has come to light has been of service for our science.' - Oscar Montelius, The Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times, 1888.
Standing as the only visible signpost in the west on the trans-Atlantic crossroads from the Caribbean to the Old World of Spain and the other countries of western Europe, Bermuda and its waters, being also an impediment of reefs in that eastward passage, became the burial place of many a hapless ship and intrepid mariner.
Over the course of the Age of Sail, in the case of Bermuda starting after its discovery in late 1505 by the eponymous Juan and ending with the advent of the Steam Age around the time of the American Civil War, the island become a sunken repository of shipwreck heritage, holding the remains of perhaps several hundred vessels.
Given that sea travel from the Age of Discovery onwards encircled the world, after Magellan if you will, the shipwreck heritage embedded in Bermuda's reefs is international heritage, ‘World Heritage' you might say, and thus it fell to the Island to preserve that heritage which belongs to all peoples.
For many years, we fulfilled that responsibility less than adequately, with much heritage being destroyed and not much being retained in the public domain, due to the inadequacies of a law promulgated in 1959, apparently composed with serious input from treasure hunters. The Act was slanted to their benefit and not that of the country or the world, and thus the possession of much of that shipwreck heritage passed into private hands.
That world changed with the enactment by the Progressive Labour Party government, under Premier (now Dame) Jennifer Smith, JP, MP, of the Historic Wrecks Act 2001.
That good and just law for shipwreck heritage mandates that all work carried out on the remaining sites be done by the scientific methods of archaeology and that artifacts and material found belong to the Government, which is also entitled to copies of all records made during the work. Those collections of artifacts and records are ultimately to form the ‘National Collection' of shipwreck heritage, to be preserved, studied and shared on behalf of the people of Bermuda and the wider world.
Since 1975, when shipwreck artifacts at the Bermuda Aquarium were transferred to Dockyard, the Maritime Museum (now the National Museum) became the de facto custodian of what then comprised “the national collection” and has spent several millions building an essential conservation laboratory and curating and exhibiting those collections, along with materials the Museum and associated groups, such as the Sea Venture Trust and university field schools, have excavated since 1982, when modern archaeology methods were introduced into the process of examining shipwrecks in Bermuda.