Cast from state-of-the-art materials and designed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy with their lethal accuracy, the two latest additions to the arsenal of the Ministry of Defence were confirmed yesterday at a cost of £53,000. Their only shortcoming is that the last time they forced opponents to quail under fire was 265 years ago.
In one of the more unusual defence purchases of recent years, the MoD has agreed to pay an American treasure-hunting company for two bronze cannons recovered from the wreck of HMS Victory, the predecessor to Admiral Nelson's flagship. The Victory was thought to have a substantial amount of bullion on board when it was lost in a storm off Alderney in 1744.
The deal with Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration came after the company dropped its claim to the Royal Navy ship in the US courts and agreed to conduct any further exploration of the remains of the vessel, which sank with the loss of its 1,150-strong crew, under the control of British authorities.
Odyssey has attracted controversy over its success in finding bullion-rich wrecks and covering its costs by selling their artefacts. Archaeologists are concerned that the exploration of submerged historical sites does not combine well with commercial operations.
In contrast with its amicable relationship with Britain, Odyssey is locked in a legal battle with the Spanish authorities over 500,000 gold and silver coins recovered from a galleon claimed by Madrid to be the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes.
The MoD said that acquiring the cannons – a 42-pounder and a 12-pounder – was a suitable use of public money because no examples of the guns existed in a British public collection. The Victory was hailed as the most technically advanced vessel of her era and was the last Navy warship to be fitted with a full complement of 100 bronze guns, considered lighter and more accurate than cast-iron cannons. The two salvaged cannons, one of which carries the ornate crest of George I, will go on display at the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.
Under the deal with the MoD, Odyssey, which has records on more than 3,000 wreck sites, is entitled to a payment of £99,000 but the company agreed to forego £46,000 as a donation to the Royal Naval Museum to help fund its exhibition on HMS Victory. Under international maritime law, any wreck proven to be a military vessel remains the property of the state, along with its contents, although a salvage operator can claim an "award" to cover the value of any recovered artefacts.
Odyssey said it intended to consult with the MoD, English Heritage and other parties to determine what would happen to the wreck. Under a 2001 Unesco convention, the commercial exploitation of wrecks is banned and artefacts should be left in situ unless they are at risk of destruction. Odyssey says the Victory wreck is in danger of being destroyed by trawlers.