Spain and the UK and digging up history and going for gold
On a stormy night, more than three hundred years ago, a royal mission ended in tragedy. Having navigated the tempestuous waters of the Bay of Biscay, the angry waves of the eastern Atlantic and entering the millpond waters of the Mediterranean, the final stretch of the long voyage, the ship went down and took 560 crew members with it.
Those millpond waters erupted in a deathly aquatic explosion from which the terrified sailors on board the HMS Sussex would never escape.
Only two survived the wreckage. The remainder washed up on the coasts of Gibraltar and Málaga. Rescue forces found the captain in his nightshirt.
Our only testimony of this maritime carnage came from the two Muslims who, by virtue of miracle and fervent prayer, managed to swim ashore. They said that such was the force of the gale hitting the vessel face-on that the mast was ripped clear of the hull. With no steering and no windbreak, the tragic finale of the HMS Sussex’s first and only voyage was inexorable.
Fortunately, in many ways, for those on board, the furious deluge that swallowed the craft whole did its worst at night, when the majority – including the Admiral at the helm – were sleeping. Most would have known little of their last few hours on Earth.
Along with the sailors who would never see home turf again, a cargo of gold and silver worth 3,300 million euros has been languishing on the sea bed, a kilometre below the surface of the Strait of Gibraltar, since February 19, 1694 – just two days after the ship set sail.
Those 560 lives could never be recovered, but now, centuries later, there is a chance that the vessel’s precious cargo might.
Charged by the crown with delivering the gold to the Duke of Savoy, in an attempt to bring to an end the war of the Habsburgs against King Louis XIV of France, Admiral Francis Wheeler and his crew set off on that fateful February morning, little knowing that this would be their last voyage. The Duke, an ally of the British, never received his gold and was paid off by the French instead, switching sides. The result of the war could have been very different if the Sussex had not gone down to the east of the rock, at the mercy of the infamous Levante (east wind) which nowadays has more fame amongst windsurfers in nearby Tarifa.
Most of Europe had clubbed together to stop the French from usurping more territory on the continent, with England, Sweden, Holland, Spain, Austria and some states in Germany attempting to beat them back. In a war that lasted nine years – ending in 1697 – the key to success was to persuade the Duke of Savoy to join forces with them.
Savoy, then a large state in what is now made up of Monaco, north-western Italy and south-eastern France, was hugely powerful and would have considerable influence over the outcome of France’s quest. The Duke had been offered a considerable bribe by the French crown, which King William III of England was keen to counter.
The HMS Sussex’s cargo upped the stakes considerably, but the money never reached the Duke’s hands. A second attempt to ship gold and silver to him reached the Savoy shores too late, and the Duke accepted France’s bribe instead, defecting to the enemy camp.
It was not until 1995 that maritime historians began to show an interest in the sunken galleon and its ten tonnes of precious metal. Florida-based company Odyssey Marine Exploration was determined to locate the ship that has never yet achieved much international renown despite meeting a sticky end off the south coast of Spain, being far less acclaimed than other famous shipwrecks.
Researchers, commissioned by Odyssey, left no stone unturned and scoured through archives in England, France, Holland and the USA in their quest for clues. Three years later, the search began.
Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, locating the HMS Sussex was no easy task, although Odyssey did manage to uncover airline engines, shrapnel from off-target bombs and even a Phoenician shipwreck covered by ceramic amphorae and dating back to around 400 BC.
Odyssey’s ship-seeking technology was some of the most advanced of its kind used to date - effectively, a robot in a cage known as a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) which, once freed from its confines, can roam around the sea-bed on tracks similar to that of a war tank or swim using the aid of propellers, taking pictures en route which are transmitted back to the ship from which it is dropped.
Five years ago and almost on the anniversary of the galleon’s demise, it was the discovery of a cannon, not far from where Wheeler’s vessel went down, that led the explorers to believe they were on the right track.
Spanish and French warships mainly used cannons made of bronze, and this was not. It lay in a mass of demolished timber half-submerged into the sea-bed, but the treasure is likely to be even further down, experts say. The Duke’s counter-bribe would probably have been stored in the very bowels of the ship, underneath layers of gravel and barrels containing salted meat to provide sustenance for the crew.
To this end, the ROV will have to filch through the rotting wreckage to be able to penetrate the hold, a move which is likely to fire up marine archaeologists who feel it prudent to wait until more thorough, technologically-advanced exploration techniques can be developed. Yet neither Odyssey nor the UK are prepared to wait to get their hands on the gold.
A landmark agreement was signed between the treasure-hunters and the British government, meaning that if this really is the 80-gun warship destined for the court of the Duke of Savoy, the gold and silver found will be divided between the two parties.
Spain’s government was less impressed with the idea at first. The HMS Sussex sank off the coast of Andalucía, meaning that Zapatero’s cabinet considered the wreck and its contents should remain in the country.
However, three weeks ago, the powers that be finally relented. Spain had finally allowed itself to be persuaded to permit the search of the ship’s remains, but the regional government of Andalucía continued to hinder the process.
At the end of March, though, the Junta de Andalucía reached an agreement with the UK Ministry of Defence, meaning the two parties will jointly choose a team of archaeologists to examine the wreck.
A dream that has united and divided two continents and three countries for more than a decade is about to be realised and, quite aside from the lucrative aspect of the mission, exploring the vestiges of the HMS Sussex will be a golden opportunity to open up a lost chapter of European maritime history.