A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
On a foul night in late November 1814, a sleek man-of-war ran into serious trouble as it sailed to the British naval base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Straying into shallow waters some 20 miles southwest of the port, HMS Fantome hit a rocky reef and sank in a matter of hours, as did two ships in the convoy she was escorting. Such maritime disasters along Nova Scotia's jagged, foggy coast were sadly common, but local residents took a particular interest in Fantome. The warship reputedly carried a unique cargo--plunder that British forces had taken before burning the White House on August 24, 1814.
Now, nearly 200 years later, Fantome lies at the center of an international controversy. To the dismay of many prominent nautical archaeologists, Nova Scotia has licensed a private treasure-hunting company to salvage what it believes to be Fantome and its convoy. Under this license, LeChameau Explorations Limited is free to sell for profit 90 percent of all the valuables it recovers, sparking fears that White House treasures may one day be auctioned on eBay to private collectors around the world. It's a prospect that disturbs U.S. government officials. "We'd like these artifacts returned," says State Department spokesperson Noel Clay.
More troubling still is the light this controversy sheds on the mercenary practices of a small group of professional archaeologists. Treasure hunting on marine archaeological sites is shockingly widespread in North America. Only Nova Scotia permits this practice in Canada, but all American states, except Texas and Maine, allow some degree of commercial exploitation. To obtain the necessary government licenses, some treasure hunters hire underwater archaeologists to help them in the search for valuables. In these cases, says Willis Stevens, a nautical archaeologist at Parks Canada, "you have an archaeologist who is working for a treasure hunter and who is quite willing to accept the fact that his material will be sold for profit. In the professional archaeological community, that is immoral." Certainly, it's a situation that infuriates Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian. Underwater sites, he explains, are "like the Wild West in the nineteenth century--an open frontier for those who want to exploit them."
Fantome is a worrisome case in point. The British raid on Washington took place during the War of 1812, a two-year-long battle between Britain and the United States over bitter trade differences. To humiliate the Americans, a British expedition sailed up Chesapeake Bay and marched to Washington, occupying the White House after American forces defending the capitol were routed. The First Lady, Dolley Madison, managed to flee to safety, reportedly taking the White House silver and a famous portrait of George Washington with her. "So what was left behind would have been household furniture, pretty much," says Bill Allman, the White House curator. As mementos, the British sailors and soldiers stole what were likely small, readily portable souvenirs from the White House, then set it and the Capitol ablaze. The next day, the troops marched back to Chesapeake Bay.
Surviving records paint a confusing picture of what eventually happened to these White House artifacts. Nova Scotian folklore, however, suggests that Fantome and its convoy were carrying these goods to Halifax when they sank, and during the 1960s, local divers reported finding American coins minted before 1814 in a region known as the Fantome Fangs. Drawn by these accounts, LeChameau Explorations Limited obtained an exclusive license under Nova Scotia's Treasure Trove Act to search for Fantome's convoy and recover what might remain of the ships. In a complex financial maneuver, the firm then sold the right to this license to a parent company owned by Sovereign Exploration Associates International.
Curtis Sprouse, chief operating officer of Sovereign Exploration, insists that his company is taking a scientific approach to the quest, and maintains that it will work closely with museums and make a documentary film about the wreck site. "I often tell people that we are in the preservation and presentation of history, that's our goal," he explains. In compliance with Nova Scotia's regulations, Sprouse and his colleagues have hired a conservator as well as an underwater archaeologist, James J. Sinclair, who previously took part in the commercial treasure-hunting operation on the famous Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank off the Florida coast in 1622 carrying at least 35 tons of silver and 161 pieces of gold. The recovery of Atocha's treasure came under harsh criticism from many nautical archaeologists for its crude recovery techniques. Sinclair declined, on the advice of lawyers, a request by Archaeology for an interview.
To date, Sinclair's team has surveyed the Nova Scotian wreck site, conducted an initial recovery of artifacts, and prepared a preliminary report on their work for the Nova Scotia Museum. However, legal representatives of LeChameau Explorations Limited have insisted that Archaeology not make the contents of this scientific report public, citing "commercially
sensitive information" in the document.
Fantome, however, is not the only historic ship that Sprouse and his colleagues are searching for. The company also holds exclusive rights to four other important wreck sites in Nova Scotia, including Le Chameau, a French merchant ship lost in 1725, and HMS Tilbury, a British naval vessel that sank in 1757, during the Seven Years' War. In addition, Sprouse states that the company has obtained--by arrangement with another private firm--licenses, permits, and rights to an additional 450 shipwreck sites, primarily in Nova Scotian waters. "No one," boasts Sprouse, "has ever done this on the type of scale that we are targeting."
Such business plans greatly worry heritage activists. One vocal critic, Halifax diver and documentary filmmaker John Wesley Chisholm, fears that the province's open-for-business attitude is destroying marine archaeological resources that should be preserved for all. The province's Treasure Trove legislation, he says, serves as little more than "a privateering act."
What is clearly needed, adds Chisholm, is stricter legislation to protect underwater sites from corporate bottom lines, as well as resources to hire provincial and state nautical archaeologists to enforce the regulations. Until then, concludes the filmmaker sadly, it's "come all ye pirates."
Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist and author of The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust.