British warship sunk during war with US may hold lost treasures of White House

The wreck of HMS 'Fantome', sunk in 1814, is at the mercy of plundering divers off the coast of Nova Scotia

Nearly two hundred years after the almost forgotten War of 1812 between Britain and the then fledgling United States, a new skirmish has broken out over the fate of a British warship wrecked off the coast of Nova Scotia and believed to contain precious artefacts hauled from the sacked White House in Washington.

American divers sparked the dispute after they recently located the wreck of what many believe is HMS Fantome, a British Navy brig that led a convoy of ships from Washington to Halifax after British troops stormed the American capital and burned down the White House.

A Halifax-based documentary film-maker and marine explorer, John Chisolm, has launched a campaign to petition the Canadian provincial government in Nova Scotia to rescind the permit it has given to a Massachusetts marine exploration company to explore the wreck, on the grounds that its divers are plundering important treasures.

Under Nova Scotian law, anyone can explore wrecks such as the Fantome and, provided they pay 10 per cent royalties on their finds to the government, they can make off with whatever booty they find.

Experts have long assumed that the Fantome and the other vessels in the doomed convoy lie on the dangerous shoals in the relatively shallow waters just outside Halifax harbour.

The ships went down during a vicious storm on 24 November 1814, only weeks after the British burned the White House. They were bound for what was then the most important garrison in British North America.

What treasures lay in the hold has never been established, but it is believed that gold was among them. Adding to the mystery, Mr Chisolm last week told The Independent on Sunday that someone had stolen the relevant documents in the Nova Scotian archives that might have answered that and many other questions about the Fantome.

He said he now plans to travel to London to continue the search for information about the Fantome's cargo in the records of the Admiralty.

In the meantime, he is pessimistic that the Nova Scotian government will cancel the permit it gave Chameau Explorations Ltd to visit the wreck.

He says that only in recent days has he learnt that a variety of treasure-hunters over many years have already lifted a good deal of material from the wreck, including gold bullion.

Mr Chisolm argues that before anything else is taken, he or someone else should be authorised to visit the wreck and properly photograph it and determine what remains.

"We are not asking for the moon," he said. "We are just saying that before some silverware or other artefacts from the White House turn up on eBay we should stop for a second and figure out what we should be doing with the wreck."

If he gets no answer soon from the Nova Scotian government, Mr Chisolm intends going to the site himself to start work on exploring the wreck before nothing is left. Never mind, he says, that the gathering winter weather makes things "a little nutty out there right now".

The existing White House was built to replace the one that the British set alight. Only two items were saved for certain from the conflagration, according to historians. One was a painting of George Washington rescued by the then First Lady, Dolly Madison. The other was a jewellery box given to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 by a Canadian who said that one of his forebears had taken it from Washington.

While no one has yet said for sure that the wreck is the Fantome, it seems increasingly likely. "I am convinced from the findings that they do have a vessel from that period and that it's a British military vessel," said David Christianson, of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, who issued the permit to the American company diving there.

"If it is the Fantome, it certainly is significant to our history."