Intrepid treasure-hunters or archaeological vandals ?

By Cahal Milmo and Jerome Taylor

A marine exploration company has found HMS Victory's remains. But not everyone is pleased.

At 3.30pm on 4 October 1744, the Royal Navy flotilla accompanying HMS Victory caught what was to be their last glimpse of their flagship as it drifted over the horizon in stormy seas off the Channel Islands.

Laden with four tons of Portuguese gold, the pride of the British navy – and direct predecessor to Admiral Nelson's vessel of the same name – sank with all 1,150 of its crew.

Only the shattered remains of its top-mast were found on a Guernsey beach as evidence of its terrible fate.

But yesterday the ability of that majestic and – for its time – technically advanced man-of-war to evoke dreams of vast riches was revived when an American treasure-hunting company announced that it had found the Victory and is planning to salvage its precious cargo from the depths of the English Channel.

Archaeologists accuse the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration of combining hi-tech surveying methods with commercial ambition. They have also attacked the Ministry of Defence for "indulging in hypocrisy", after it emerged that the ministry is in negotiations with Odyssey to share the proceeds.

If all the bullion being carried by the Victory is recovered, it is estimated that it could be worth as much as £700m.

To its supporters, Odyssey is a reputable, publicly listed company that follows strict archaeological guidelines in a legitimate search for sunken vessels around the globe.

But its detractors, ranging from leading archaeological bodies to the Spanish government, claim the treasure hunters hide behind a veneer of scientific probity as they harness technology to profit from the world's sunken heritage.

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odyssey marine exploration HMS Victory Channel Islands British warship Maritime Heritage Foundation destroyed fishing nets