Topic ID #21258 - posted 7/5/2012 9:09 AM

Cameron Appointed Peer, MOD and Odyssey Colluded over Balchen’s HMS Victory


With the help of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and their officials, American treasure hunting salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. is poised to make commercial profits from Admiral Sir John Balchen’s HMS Victory, the memorial and grave to over a thousand Royal Navy sailors.

This special Heritage Daily investigation shows how a catalogue of incompetence, misrepresentation, collusion and back channel deals with Lord Lingfield, a leading Conservative Party supporter, mean our historic shipwrecks are not safe in the hands of MOD Navy Command and the DCMS.

On 4 October 1744 over a thousand Royal Navy personnel aboard HMS Victory, the largest first rate ship of the line in the world and Flagship of Admiral of the White Sir John Balchen, were fighting for their lives in a vicious storm in the English Channel, west of the Channel Islands. At some point, out of sight of land and the other ships in Admiral Balchen’s Fleet, they lost their fight and their vessel became the tomb of those who could not escape the sinking ship and the memorial to those who were washed away into the darkness.

The fate of the vessel and her entire crew became one of the mysteries of the sea.  A mystery spiced by the rumour published in one contemporary newspaper, the “Amsterdamsche Courant” of 18/19 November 1744, that “People have it that on board the Victory was a sum of £400,000 that it had brought from Lisbon for our merchants.”

It was the story, built on that rumour, which sent Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. looking for HMS Victory and in May 2008 Odyssey found her.

Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. is a NASDAQ quoted deep sea treasure hunting company and mining company, based in Tampa, Florida.  Using a combination of sonar and ROV’s [Remotely Operated Vehicles] Odyssey maps and identifies wrecks on the seabed in an attempt to locate the “High Value Targets” identified by its in-house historians. In a TV interview on Fox Business in March 2012 Odyssey Chief Operating Officer [COO] and President, Mark Gordon, stated that for a shipwreck to be of interest and qualify as a “High Value Target” it had to promise a return of at least $50 million.  Thus it was in the expectation of being able to market the prospect of such a return to prospective investors, rather than any intrinsic historic value, that Odyssey went looking for the wreck of HMS Victory.

Odyssey was searching for British vessels in particular because, while most national governments and heritage authorities refuse to work with the company because the of the for-profit ethos Odyssey brings to its version of maritime archaeology, Odyssey has nonetheless managed to build up a particularly close relationship with the UK Ministry of Defence.  First with the Disposal Services Authority over the controversial and currently indefinitely postponed, salvage of the alleged wreck of HMS Sussex off southern Spain and latterly, after the DSA was stripped of its role over historic wrecks after the Sussex debacle, with Navy Command based in Portsmouth.

The relationship between the UK Government and Odyssey was further strengthened by commercial salvage contracts won by Odyssey from the UK Department for Transport, for the cargoes of silver bullion aboard the SS Gairsoppa and SS Mantola, both victims of U-Boats, in the western North Atlantic, the Mantola in 1917 and the Gairsoppa in 1941.

When Odyssey located the wreck of the Victory in the Spring of 2008 it attempted to implement its standard business plan and secure commercial salvage rights as “salvor in possession” of the wreck.   This was legal nonsense as far as HMS Victory was concerned because she was a naval vessel on military duty when she sank and thus in international law she was protected from salvage by “sovereign immunity.”  Consequently the only rights Odyssey could claim were those granted by the Government of the UK.  Nonetheless, according to US court records obtained by Heritage Daily, a piece of glass was removed from the wreck and surrendered to the US Marshal to be placed under Admiralty Arrest in the US District Court in Tampa on 8 June 2008.  Technically this was an illegal interference with a sovereign immune British warship.

This legal move also carries the implication that, had Odyssey not reached a subsequent agreement with the UK Government, the company might have gone ahead and lifted material anyway and relied on the Courts to sort the issue out.  This was the tactic adopted by Odyssey over the illegal salvage of 17 tons of silver coins from the sovereign immune Spanish Frigate, Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, sunk in international waters, off southern Portugal in 1804.

Be that as it may, having gone looking for the Victory and believing they had found her, Odyssey immediately sought permission from the Ministry of Defence to begin an excavation.  What should have followed was a detailed survey and monitoring of the wreck site over a period of time while the UK Government, advised by English Heritage, independently assessed how to deal with the sensitive and historically important find.  What actually followed is revealed in the Tampa Court papers.

In August 2008 Odyssey gained permission from the MOD to lift two cannon for “identification purposes.”  This was completely unnecessary as the identification of the site was never in serious doubt.  Odyssey’s high resolution video showed bronze guns with 18th century British Crown markings, including bronze 42 pounders which were not carried aboard ships other than First Rate Ships of the Line and Victory was the only vessel of that type missing in the English Channel.

However, from Odyssey’s point of view, any delay in its ability to excavate the vessel, which it claimed might be carrying a substantial cargo of gold and silver bullion and prize money, would impact on the confidence of its investors.

For this activity, which was undertaken without the MOD taking any independent archaeological advice from either the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which leads on heritage matters, or the government’s statutory advisor, English Heritage, the Tampa Court papers reveal Odyssey reached an agreement for a standard commercial salvage reward of 80% of the value of the items despite the fact that the cannon were already the property of the UK Government!

The court papers also reveal that in September 2009 there was already a timetable in place to reach a decision about the future management of the Victory wreck site.

“It has also been agreed that Odyssey will be actively involved in the on-going process of planning and consultations to determine the ultimate disposition, management and protection of the site which is scheduled to be concluded during the second quarter of 2010.“

This schedule can only have come from negotiations with the Ministry of Defence.  Odyssey added…

“In the meantime, Odyssey will continue to provide archaeological, conservation and technical services, as needed, to Her Majesty’s Government.”

…in other words Odyssey was presenting itself in the US Courts, not as a commercial salvage company, but as an “actively involved” official archaeological service provider to the UK Government.

This is early evidence of Odyssey developing multiple narratives about the Victory where the company appears to be what it feels its audience wants it to be.  As the story progressed Odyssey has attempted to present HMS Victory as a site about to deliver a 50-80% after costs return for the benefit of its investors, as a human interest led story about maritime mystery and treasure for the wider media and as a considered historical and archaeological research project for the benefit of the UK authorities and heritage community.

The contradictions inherent in these multiple viewpoints could only be kept apart if Odyssey’s extensive public relations operation was able to keep the narrative moving forward and retain control of the narrative strands.  When the project stalled in the early months of 2012 and detailed information about the company and HMS Victory contract began to be widely published the result was an administrative and public relations train wreck.

The comment also offered an early glimpse of what would be another important strand of Odyssey’s presentational strategy throughout the HMS Victory controversy.  That is to seek to present itself as working, not on behalf of its investors, but on behalf of the British Government and establishment.

Faced with this, Navy Command, which was responsible for administering the ship as a sovereign immune naval vessel, should have had two overriding responsibilities.  First for the ship as a historically important Royal Navy warship with sovereign immunity under International Law preventing any unauthorised interference with her remains and second and morally perhaps even more powerfully, for the welfare of the remains of Victory’s crew.

This is because, even though a sunken warship is not legally a “war grave” under International Law and in spite of the fact they died over two hundred and sixty years ago, the crew of Victory should have been treated in exactly the same way as any serving member of the British Armed Forces who dies on active service today.  That is with privacy, respect and the protection of the government, facilitated by organisations such as the Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre [JCCC] and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC].

Heritage Daily must make it clear that there is no evidence that Odyssey has behaved improperly towards any human remains found on the HMS Victory wreck site.

However, the management arrangements which the Ministry of Defence, Deputy Command Secretary (DCS) of Navy Command, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Senior Conservative Peer Lord Lingfield and Mr Greg Stemm, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Odyssey Marine International Inc now combined to put in place for HMS Victory and the way those arrangements were negotiated, goes to the heart of what Heritage Daily believes may turn into one of the great heritage scandals of recent times.

Everything which follows is supported by Documents and E-mails released under the UK Freedom of Information Act, by other documents and e-mails obtained by Heritage Daily and by material already in the public domain including, US Court Papers, reports and press releases by Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. and briefings by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee; an independent expert group specialising in maritime archaeology policy and the development of internationally recognised best practice for underwater heritage.

These sources can be used to tell a shabby story of incompetence in failing to take even the most basic steps to conduct due diligence; of the failure to follow the most basic elements of UK Government policy over historic wrecks; of the failure to take independent advice and worst of all, of privileged back channel communications involving a Minister, a Peer of the Realm and improper collusion by Government Officials; all of which have served the interests of a foreign owned commercial salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.

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