When HMS Victory, Britain’s most fearsome warship, went down with all hands in a vicious storm in the English Channel in 1744, the recriminations were bitter.
Some blamed rotten timbers and the vessel’s top-heavy design, while others muttered about the seamanship of Admiral Sir John Balchen.
But the ferocity and grief of 270 years ago is fast paling in comparison to the acrimony of the battle now being waged over how to safeguard what remains of HMS Victory, the direct predecessor to Nelson’s flagship of the same name.
A former Labour Defence minister has strongly criticised the key players in ongoing attempts to recover artefacts from the wreck site.
They include Odyssey Marine Exploration, a controversial US company, as well as a Conservative peer with disputed family links to Admiral Balchen and whose charity – the Maritime Heritage Foundation (MHF) – was gifted the vessel by the Government.
Kevan Jones, a shadow Defence minister, told the Commons he believes Odyssey is a “scam” and accused Lord Lingfield, an education adviser to David Cameron, of being either a “Walter Mitty” or having an undisclosed financial relationship with Odyssey. The Labour MP yesterday formally asked the National Audit Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission in America to look into various aspects of the Government’s attempts to secure Victory’s remains.
Mr Jones said: “The Government should immediately cancel this arrangement with Odyssey and the MHF. Britons will be outraged and scandalised by the sleazy way the Government have treated the last resting place of the HMS Victory and her crew.”
The onslaught brought a robust response from Odyssey and others involved in the project, who accused Mr Jones of being drawn to “inaccurate conclusions”.
The row has its roots in the 2008 discovery by Odyssey of the scattered remains of Admiral Balchen’s vessel, west of Alderney. Its discovery whipped up a new squall about whether it is appropriate to strike a bargain to surrender artefacts to a private company in return for safeguarding state-owned treasures.
Under the deal struck between the MoD and the MHF, Odyssey will be employed to rescue cannon lying on the seabed at claimed risk of looters ahead of future excavation work
A key aspect of the dispute is the possibility that the Victory may have been carrying up to 100,000 gold coins worth anything up to £128m. The existence of this bullion is disputed, but if it is located, it is likely a majority of it will be passed to Odyssey by MHF to cover the US company’s costs.
Critics say this arrangement is unseemly and was not subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny. But those involved with the joint MHF-Odyssey search bridle at the suggestion that it is just an underwater treasure hunt.
They point that out that the project has been scrutinised by scientific advisers, including English Heritage. They also complain that Lord Lingfield has been unfairly singled out for his personal interest in the Victory. In a letter to Mr Jones, Dr Sean Kingsley, a shipwreck archaeologist and consultant to MHF and Odyssey, said: “The true scandal in the case of Balchen’s Victory, it seems to me, would be if the current opportunity to save this noble wreck was thrown overboard for the sake of personal ideological agendas.”
Odyssey said it strongly rejected Mr Jones’s claims about its financial and archaeological record, saying it had been a publicly traded company for 18 years and always followed applicable laws. It also denied any separate financial relationship with Lord Lingfield.
In a statement, the company said: “We believe Mr Jones has been misinformed and very likely provided with selective information from a small group of people. It is appalling that while this argument has been ongoing for years, the site remains at risk with important cultural heritage being destroyed and looted.”
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