One of the haunting images of this pandemic will be stationary cruise ships – deadly carriers of COVID-19 – at anchor in harbours and unwanted. Docked in ports and feared.
The news of the dramatic spread of the virus on the Diamond Princess from early February made the news real for many Australians who’d enjoyed holidays on the seas. Quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, over 700 of the ship’s crew and passengers became infected. To date, 14 deaths have been recorded.
The Diamond Princess’s sister ship, the Ruby Princess, brought the pandemic to Australian shores. Now under criminal investigation, the events of the Ruby Princess forced a spotlight on the petri dish cruise ships can become. The ship has been linked to 21 deaths.
Merchant ships carrying rats with infected fleas were transmitters of the Plague of Justinian (541-542 AD) that devastated the Byzantine Empire.
Ships carrying grain from Egypt were home to flea-infested rats that fed off the granaries. Contantinople was especially inflicted, with estimates as high as 5,000 casualties a day. Globally, up to 50 million people are estimated to have been killed – half the world’s population.
The Black Death was also carried by rats on merchant ships through the trade routes of Europe. It struck Europe in 1347, when 12 ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.
Subsequently called “death ships”, those on board were either dead or sick. Soon, the Black Death spread to ports around the world, such as Marseilles, Rome and Florence, and by 1348 had reached London with devastating impact.
The Italian writer, poet and scholar, Giovanni Boccaccio, wrote how terror swept through Florence with relatives deserting infected family members. Almost inconceivably, he wrote, “fathers and mothers refused to nurse their own children, as though they did not belong to them”.
Ships started being turned away from European ports in 1347. Venice was the first city to close, with those permitted to enter forced into a 40-day quarantine: the word “quarantine” derives from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.
By January 1349, mass graves proliferated outside of London to bury the increasing numbers of dead.
Army and naval ships, as well as travellers around the globe, also carried cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century. In the first pandemic in 1817, British army and navy ships are believed to have spread cholera beyond India where the outbreaks originated.
By the 1820s, cholera had spread throughout Asia, reaching Thailand, Indonesia, China and Japan through shipping. British troops spread it to the Persian Gulf, eventually moving through Turkey and Syria.
Subsequent outbreaks from the 1820s through to the 1860s relied on trade and troops to spread the disease across continents.
At war with the Spanish Flu
The Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers.
One New Zealand rifleman wrote in his diary in September 1918:
More deaths and burials total now 42. A crying shame but it is only to be expected when human beings are herded together the way they have been on this boat.
The flu was transmitted throughout Europe in France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain. Three-quarters of French troops and over half of British troops fell ill in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of US soldiers travelling on troop ships across the Atlantic and back provided the perfect conditions for transmission.
The fate of cruising
A new and lethal carrier in the 21st century has emerged in the pleasure industry of cruise ships. The explosion of cruise holidays in the past 20 years has led to a proliferation of luxury liners plying the seas.
Like historical pandemics, the current crisis shares the characteristic of rapid spread through ships.
The unknown is in what form cruise ships will continue to operate. Unlike the port-to-port trade and armed forces that carried viruses across continents centuries ago, the services cruise lines offer are non-essential.
Whatever happens, the global spread of COVID-19 reminds us “death ships” are an enduring feature of the history of pandemics.
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. You can see other stories in the series here and an interactive here.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stumbled on the word “re-enactment” when outlining his government’s (now suspended) plans for commemorating the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s mythologised “discovery” of Australia.
Certainly, the planned route of the replica HMB Endeavour with 39 stops (and funded at A$6.7 million) could not be described as such: Cook never circumnavigated mainland Australia nor visited Tasmania on the Endeavour.
Morrison quickly clarified that the only gesture of historical accuracy would be a “retracing” of Cook’s voyage up the eastern seaboard.
Historical re-enactments of Cook’s landing are not new to settler Australia. They have focused on Cook’s landfall at Botany Bay, south of Sydney, where the Endeavour’s crew first stepped onto the continent on April 29 1770.
His journal recorded they were greeted by two Dharawal men “who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing”. Cook fired his musket at the men three times, including aiming directly, forcing their retreat.
Cook’s active role in British hostility to Aboriginal peoples was erased from subsequent performances of the Botany Bay landing.
These have also been embellished with Cook claiming the east coast of Australia — this actually occurred some months later at Possession Island in the Torres Strait.
Such popular “re-enactments” of national “foundation moments” have elements of fantasy, compressing time and history into palatable narratives for mainstream Australia.
The history of Cook re-enactments
Cook’s arrival was commemorated as early as 1822, when Sydney’s Philosophical Society erected a plaque at Kurnell, on the headland of Botany Bay. By 1864, the Australian Patriotic Association had located the “exact” site a kilometre away.
Following the 1870 centenary of Cook’s landfall, annual pro-British “celebrations” at Botany Bay involved the presence of the governor, flag-raising, gun salutes, and military displays.
In a society eager to erase its convict stain, Cook was a more acceptable founder than Governor Arthur Phillip, who had established the penal colony in Sydney Cove in 1788.
Considerable confusion existed then – and continues today — about the historical roles of Cook and Phillip. Even during the 1888 Centennial of the First Fleet, the largest triumphal arch in Sydney was adorned with Cook’s image and a model of the Endeavour.
The inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in January 1901 provided the impetus for a major re-enactment at Kurnell, headlined as the “Second Coming of Cook”. The spectacle attracted a crowd of over 5,000, with 1,000 enjoying a champagne luncheon in an enormous marquee.
The re-enactment began with the arrival of the Endeavour, represented by local fishing vessel “Fanny Fisher”. Once ashore, Cook and his sailors and marines encountered 25 Aboriginal men armed with spears and decorated with feathers and ochre. A gun was fired overhead, then Cook ordered a sailor to shoot at the Aborigines before making his imperial claim on the continent. Cook, Joseph Banks and a nymph symbolising Australia gave speeches on the “greatness” and unity of the Britannia of the Southern Ocean.
Although an Aboriginal community lived at La Perouse on the opposite shore of Botany Bay, the re-enactment involved a troupe of Indigenous men from Queensland. They were directed by parliamentarian and entrepreneur Archibald Meston, who had previously toured Indigenous performers in his “Wild Australia” show.
It is unknown under what circumstances the Aboriginal men were recruited for the Federation re-enactment, or if they were paid.
Despite dramatising a beach-side skirmish between the Aborigines and British, the Federation performance cemented Cook as the conquering peacemaker. This was promoted by E. Phillips Fox, who was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria to paint The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 (1902).
This monumental work is a tableau – or frozen re-enactment — of Cook striding purposefully up the beach, stretching out his hand as he takes territorial possession. It was widely reproduced and circulated, becoming the best-known and influential image of Cook’s landing across Australia.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the anniversary of the Endeavour’s arrival at Botany Bay was marked by performative gestures to the past. Dignitaries arrived by steamship, coming ashore to give speeches situating Cook as founder of the nation.
For instance, in 1930 at the height of the Depression, spectators were exhorted to “practice self-denial and self-reliance as exemplified in Captain Cook’s exploits”.
Although a full-scale re-enactment was staged in 1951 for the Federation jubilee, interest in Cook waned and the formalities were abandoned.
This changed dramatically in 1970, with the bicentenary of Cook’s Australian landing. Cook was suddenly everywhere, with government funding supporting pageants, memorials and other Cook novelties around the nation.
The nationalistic climax of months of events was an elaborate re-enactment at Kurnell, performed for the visiting Queen Elizabeth and her entourage. Directed by musical theatre aficionado Hayes Gordon, the spectacle was designed for global television, with actors selected after a nationwide search. Held on “Discovery Day”, it attracted a crowd of over 50,000 people.
Promoted as portraying the “birth of modern Australia”, this re-enactment capitalised on the groundswell of popular interest in Australia’s past. Emphasis was placed on historical accuracy, although nothing challenged the well-established nonsense of Cook’s party briefly confronting Indigenous peoples before peacefully claiming the continent.
To show how far the nation had progressed, “multicultural” schoolchildren and boy scouts and girl guides rose and fell in waves along the beach.
Protesting and mourning
Amid this “celebration”, diverse Aboriginal protests were under way, although they were little covered by the press.
At La Perouse, Aboriginal poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) was among hundreds of protesters who boycotted the re-enactment and released funeral wreaths into the sea.
A silent vigil had been held the night before, and a “day of mourning” was observed at Sydney Town Hall and in other Australian cities.
In 1970, a second re-enactment was held in Cooktown, also witnessed by the queen. The original Endeavour had spent seven weeks there, undergoing repairs after running into the Great Barrier Reef.
Cooktown has a long record of Cook-related performances, though initially these were sporadic. But from 1960, the Cooktown Re-enactment Association organised an annual event.
The performances evolved from a battle with Aboriginal people to Cook landing and taking possession and, more recently, celebrations of acts of conciliation.
Future direction: same old or new path forward?
Until coronavirus and social distancing made all public events impossible, the federal government had slated to spend A$5.45 million on the Cooktown 2020 Expo, including a re-enactment of the landing of Captain Cook and his interactions with the Guugu Yimithirr bama.
As this historical overview of over a century of re-enactments of Cook’s landing has shown, these events have served to reinforce Australia’s imperial and British connections. They ignore the violence of Cook’s encounters with Aboriginal people and Indigenous resistance, and perpetuate the myth of Cook’s discovery of Australia.
You can hear Kate Darian-Smith discussing these ideas in an episode of our podcast, Trust Me, I’m An Expert, over here.
This is the story of how a parasitic, skin-chewing insect came to conquer the world.
For more than a century, scientists have been puzzled as to how an obscure louse native to Australia came to be found on dogs across the world. Heterodoxus spiniger evolved to live in the fur of the agile wallaby.
Despite little evidence to back the idea, many researchers believed it was linked to people from Asia bringing the dingo to Australia in ancient times. Perhaps people later took dingoes infested with this parasite back home, where it spread to local dogs, and onwards from there.
But when we approached the question again using the most up-to-date information, my colleague Peter Contos and I came up with a completely different explanation – one that better fits what we know of ancient migration and trade in the Asia-Pacific region.
As we report in the journal Environmental Archaeology, this louse probably originated not in Australia but in New Guinea, an island with a long history of intimate connection with seafaring Asian cultures.
Louse on the loose
H. spiniger is a tiny louse that lives on mammals around the world, mostly dogs. Using its clawed legs to hang on, it bites and chews at the skin and hair of its hosts to draw the blood on which it feeds.
As all its closest relatives are specialised parasites of marsupials, mostly other wallabies, logic suggested that H. spiniger must have evolved within Australia. It also seemed logical it would have spread first to the dingo, Australia’s native dog.
Our first task was to figure out just how far away from Australia it had spread; this would inform the likely pathways by which it could have travelled to the wider world.
We looked at museum collections, entomological surveys, and veterinary research reports to generate a map of its worldwide distribution.
The specimens we found, collected from the late 19th century to the present day, showed that this species is found on every continent except Europe and Antarctica.
But in Australia, we couldn’t find a single verifiable instance of the parasite living on dingoes. The only cases were from agile wallabies and domestic dogs.
That meant the prevailing wisdom had been wrong, and we had to look elsewhere for the origins of H. spiniger.
Where did it really come from?
Although marsupials are best known from Australia, they are also found in other parts of the surrounding region. The agile wallaby is also native to the island of New Guinea, which was once joined with Australia.
Dogs have also been in New Guinea for at least as long as the dingo has been in Australia. Traditionally, dogs were kept in Papuan villages, and were used to hunt game, including wallabies.
It came as little surprise, then, that we found H. spiniger on both agile wallabies and native dogs in New Guinea – and only a few decades after the first ever identification of the species.
So here was a more likely place in which the first transfer from wallaby to dog took place. But who took them out of New Guinea and into the wider world?
New Guinea was first colonised by humans around the same time as Australia. But since that time, compared with Australia it has had notably stronger connections with the outside world, reaching back millennia before European colonisation of Australia in 1788.
Around 4,000 years ago, agriculturalists known as Austronesians sailed out of Taiwan to settle several archipelagos in Oceania. With them they brought domestic species of plants and animals, including dogs.
By 3,000 years ago, at the latest, they reached New Guinea. We suggest this was the crucial moment when dogs first picked up H. spiniger.
In the ensuing centuries, Austronesians went on to settle much of Indonesia, the Philippines, Melanesia and Polynesia, and coastal sections of mainland Southeast Asia.
They even settled as far as Madagascar, suggesting their voyages probably took them around the rim of the Indian Ocean, along the margins of India and the Middle East.
Dogs accompanying the migrants probably helped spread the louse, which is found almost everywhere they went.
This spans an enormous distance – from Hawaii to Madagascar – a testament to the ancient Austronesians’ supreme seafaring skills.
Our research suggests how the parasite first got around the world, but not precisely when. Its journey probably progressed at different times in different places.
Later, foreign traders connected these communities with greater Asia and Africa. And in modern times, dogs continue to be transported as desirable goods themselves.
Trade and contact has probably led to further, possibly ongoing, dispersal of H. spiniger.
Unfortunately there are no archaeological examples that could demonstrate the louse’s early presence outside New Guinea, because this species prefers hot, humid environments.
A genetic approach is a better way forward. A start would be testing specimens from different parts of the world, to see when different regional populations – if they exist – branched off from one another.
This is particularly important in tracking its spread to the Americas, which likely occurred in recent centuries alongside European colonisation.
This research will help us further understand how migration, contact and trade unfolded in the prehistoric Asia-Pacific region, and how it affected the animal species – including the humblest of parasites – we see there today.
This paper would not have been possible without the contributions of Peter Contos, the work of volunteers on the Natural History Museum’s Boopidae of Australasia digitisation project, and the contributions of the public to Wikipedia Creative Commons, for which we are grateful.
We used the CSIRO research vessel Investigator to look for the sunken vessel. The Investigator deploys multibeam echosounder technology on a gondola 1.2 metres below the hull.
Multibeam echosounders send acoustic signal beams down and out from the vessel and measure both the signal strength and time of return on a receiver array.
The receiver transmits the data to the operations room for real-time processing. These data provide topographic information and register features within the water column and on the seabed.
At 8pm on April 16, we arrived on site and within a couple of hours noted a feature in the multibeam data that looked suspiciously like a shipwreck. It measured 100m in length with an approximate beam of 16-22m and profile of 8m sitting at a water depth of 650m.
Given that we were close to maxing out what the multibeam could do, it provided an excellent opportunity to put the drop camera in the water and get “eyes on”.
The camera collected footage of the stern, midship and bow sections of the wreck. These were compared to archival photos. Given the location, dimension and noted features, we identified it as SS Iron Crown.
The merchant steamer
SS Iron Crown was an Australian merchant vessel built at the government dockyard at Williamstown, Victoria, in 1922.
On June 4 1942, the steel screw steamer of the merchant vavy was transporting manganese ore and iron ore from Whyalla to Newcastle when it was torpedoed by the Japanese Imperial Type B (巡潜乙型) submarine I-27.
Survivor accounts state that the torpedo struck the vessel on the port side, aft of the bridge. It sank within minutes. Thirty-eight of the 43 crew went down with the ship.
This vessel is one of four WWII losses in Victorian waters (the others were HMAS Goorangai lost in a collision, SS Cambridge and MV City of Rayville lost to mines) and the only vessel torpedoed.
After the discovery
Now we’ve finally located the wreck – seven decades after it was sunk – it is what happens next that is truly interesting.
It’s not just the opportunity to finally do an in-depth review of the collected footage stored on an external hard drive and shoved in my backpack, but to take the important step of ensuring how the story is told going forward.
When a shipwreck is located, the finder must report it within seven days to the Commonwealth’s Historic Shipwreck Program or to the recognised delegate in each state/territory with location information and as much other relevant data as possible.
Shipwrecks aren’t just found by professionals, but are often located by knowledgeable divers, surveyors, the military, transport ships and beachcombers. It’s no big surprise that many shipwrecks are well-known community fishing spots.
While it is possible to access the site using remotely operated vehicles or submersibles, we hope the data retrieved from this voyage will be enough.
It was only 77 years ago that the SS Iron Crown went down. This means it still has a presence in the memories of the communities and families that were touched by the event and its aftermath.
No war grave, but protected
Even though those who died were merchant navy, the site isn’t officially recognised yet as a war grave. But thanks to both state and Commonwealth legislation, the SS Iron Crown was protected before it was even located.
All shipwrecks over 75 years of age are protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976. It is an offence to damage or remove anything from the site.
This protection is enhanced by its location in deeper water and, one hopes, by the circumstances of its loss.
Sitting on the sea floor in Bass Strait, SS Iron Crown is well below the reach of even technical divers. So the site is unlikely to be illegally salvaged for artefacts and treasures.
Yet this also means that maritime archaeologists have limited access to the site and the data that can be learnt from an untouched, well-preserved shipwreck.
Virtual wreck sites
But, like the increasing capabilities for locating such sites, maritime archaeologists now have access to digital mapping, 3D modelling technologies and high-resolution imagery as was used for the British Merchant Navy shipwreck of the SS Thistlegorm.
These can even allow us to record shipwreck sites (at whatever the depth) and present them to the public in a vibrant and engaging medium.
Better than a thousand words could ever describe, these realistic models allow us to convey the excitement, wonder and awe that we have all felt at a shipwreck.
Digital 3D models enable those who cannot dive, travel or ever dream of visiting shipwrecks to do so through their laptops, mobiles and other digital devices.
Without these capabilities to record, visualise and manage these deepwater sites, they will literally fade back into the depths of the ocean, leaving only the archaeologists and a few shipwreck enthusiasts to investigate and appreciate them.
So that’s the next step, a bigger challenge than finding a site, to record a deepwater shipwreck and enable the public to experience a well-preserved shipwreck.
Researchers, including Australian maritime archaeologists, believe they have found Captain Cook’s historic ship HMB Endeavour in Newport Harbour, Rhode Island. An official announcement will be made on Friday.
The discovery is the culmination of decades of work by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and the Australian National Maritime Museum to locate and positively identify the vessel, which had been missing from the historical record for over two centuries. Plans are now under way to raise funds to excavate and conduct scientific testing in 2019.
As the first European seafaring vessel to reach the east coast of Australia, the Endeavour – much like James Cook himself – has become part of Australia’s national mythology. Unlike Cook, who famously met his end on Hawaiian shores, the fate of the Endeavour had long been unknown. The discovery has therefore resolved a long-standing maritime mystery.
In a serendipitous twist, it coincides with two significant dates: the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s departure from England in 1768 on its now (in)famous voyage south, and the 240th anniversary of the ship’s scuttling in 1778 during the American War of Independence.
Identifying the Endeavour’s location has been a 25-year processs. Archaeologists initially identified 13 potential candidates in the harbour. Over time, the number of possible sites was narrowed to five.
This month, a joint diving team has worked to measure and inspect these sites, drawing upon knowledge of Endeavour’s size to identify a likely candidate. Excavation and timber analysis is expected to provide final confirmation. Those expecting an entire ship to be recovered will be disappointed, as very little of it remains.
But this is a controversial vessel, and celebrations of its discovery will be tempered by reflection about its complicity in the British colonisation of Indigenous Australian land. While Endeavour played an instrumental role in advancing science and exploration, its arrival in what is now known as Botany Bay in 1770 also precipitated the occupation of territory that its Aboriginal owners never ceded.
Although Endeavour’s early days are well known, it has taken many years for researchers to piece together the rest of its story. One problem has been the many names the vessel was known by during its lifetime.
Built in 1764 in Whitby, England, as a collier (coal carrier), the vessel was originally named Earl of Pembroke. Its flat-bottomed hull and box-like shape, designed to transport bulk cargo, later proved helpful when navigating the treacherous coral reefs of the southern seas.
In 1768, Earl of Pembroke was sold into the service of the Royal Navy and the Royal Society. It underwent a major refit to accommodate a larger crew and sufficient provisions for a long voyage. In keeping with the ambitious spirit of the era, the vessel was renamed His Majesty’s Bark (HMB) Endeavour (bark being a nautical term to describe a ship with three masts or more).
Endeavour departed England in 1768 under the command of then-Lieutenant Cook. Ostensibly sailing to the South Pacific to observe the 1769 Transit of Venus, Cook was also under orders to search for the fabled southern continent. So it was that a coal carrier and a rare astronomical event changed the history of the Australian continent and its people.
Following Endeavour’s circumnavigation of the globe (1768-1771), the vessel was used as a store ship before the Royal Navy sold it in 1775. Here, the ship’s fate become mysterious.
Many believed it had been renamed La Liberté and put to use as a French whaling ship before succumbing to rotting timbers in Newport Harbour in 1793. Others rejected this theory, suggesting instead that Endeavour had spent her final days on the river Thames.
A breakthrough came in 1997. Australian researchers suggested the Endeavour had in fact been renamed Lord Sandwich. The theory gained weight following an archival discovery by Kathy Abbass, director of the Rhode Island project, in 2016, which indicated that Lord Sandwich had been used as a troop transport and prison ship during the American War of Independence before being scuttled in Newport Harbour in 1778.
Lord Sandwich was one of a number of transport ships deliberately sunk by the British in an attempt to prevent the French fleet from approaching the shore.
Finding a shipwreck is not impossible, but finding the one you’re looking for is hard. Rhode Island volunteers have been searching for this vessel since 1993, slowly narrowing down the search area and eliminating potential contenders as they explore the often-murky waters of Newport Harbour.
They were joined in their efforts by the Australian National Maritime Museum in 1999 and, in more recent years, by the Silentworld Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation with a particular interest in Australasian maritime archaeology.
Museums around the world are already turning their attention to the significant Cook anniversaries on the horizon and the complex legacy of these expeditions. These interpretive endeavours will only be heightened by the planned excavation of the ship’s remains in the near future.
Shipwrecks are a productive starting point for thinking about how we make meaning from the past because of the firm hold they have on the public imagination. They conjure images of lost treasure, pirates and, especially in the case of Endeavour, bold adventures to distant lands.
But as we celebrate the spirit of exploration that saw a humble coal carrier circumnavigate the globe – and the same spirit of exploration that has led to its discovery centuries later – we must also make space for the unsettling stories that will resurface as a result of this discovery.
The collapsing Nazi government ordered all U-boats in German ports to make their way to their bases in Norway on May 2, 1945. Two days later, the recently commissioned U-3523 joined the mission as one of the most advanced boats in the fleet. But to reach their destination, the submarines had to pass through the bottleneck of the Skagerrak – the strait between Norway and Denmark – and the UK’s Royal Air Force was waiting for them. Several U-boats were sunk and U-3523 was destroyed in an air attack by a Liberator bomber.
U-3523 lay undiscovered on the seabed for over 70 years until it was recently located by surveyors from the Sea War Museum in Denmark. Studying the vessel will be of immense interest to professional and amateur historians alike, not least as a way of finally putting to rest the conspiracy theory that the boat was ferrying prominent Nazis to Argentina. But sadly, recovering U-3523 is not a realistic proposition. The main challenges with such wrecks lie in accurately identifying them, assessing their status as naval graves and protecting them for the future.
U-boat wrecks like these from the end of World War II are the hardest to match to historical records. The otherwise meticulous record keeping of the Kriegsmarine (Nazi navy) became progressively sparser, breaking down completely in the last few weeks of the war. But Allied records have helped determine that this newly discovered wreck is indeed U-3523. The sea where this U-boat was located was heavily targeted by the RAF because it knew newly-built boats would flee to Norway this way.
The detailed sonar scans of the wreck site show that it is without doubt a Type XXI U-boat, of which U-3523 was the only one lost in the Skagerrak and unaccounted for. These were new types of submarines that contained a number of innovations which had the potential to make them dangerous opponents. This was primarily due to enlarged batteries, coupled to a snorkel, which meant they could stay permanently underwater. Part of the RAF’s mission was to prevent any of these new vessels getting to sea to sink Allied ships, and it successfully prevented any Type XXI U-boats from doing so.
With the U-boat’s identity correctly established, we now know that it is the grave site of its crew of 58 German servicemen. As such, the wreck should either be left in peace or, more implausibly, recovered and the men buried on land. Germany lost over 800 submarines at sea during the two world wars and many have been found in recent years. It is hopelessly impractical to recover them all, so leaving them where they are is the only real option.
Under international law all naval wrecks are termed “sovereign immune”, which means they will always be the property of the German state despite lying in Danish waters. But Denmark has a duty to protect the wreck, especially if Germany asks it to do so.
Hundreds of wartime wreck sites such as U-3523 are under threat around the world from metal thieves and grave robbers. The British cruiser HMS Exeter, which was sunk in the Java Sea on May 1, 1942, has been entirely removed from the seabed for scrap. And wrecks from the 1916 Battle of Jutland that also lie partly in Danish waters have seen industrial levels of metal theft. These examples serve as a warning that organised criminals will target shipwrecks of any age for the metals they contain.
Germany and the UK are among a number of countries currently pioneering the use of satellite monitoring to detect suspicious activity on shipwrecks thought to be under threat. This kind of monitoring could be a cost-effective way to save underwater cultural heritage from criminal activity and its use is likely to become widespread in the next few years.
The recovery cost is only a small fraction of the funds needed to preserve and display an iron object that has been immersed in the sea for many years. So bringing a wreck back to the surface should not be undertaken lightly. In nearly all cases of salvaged U-boats, the results have been financially ruinous. Lifting barges that can raise shipwrecks using large cranes cost tens of thousands of pounds a day to charter. Once recovered, the costs of conservation and presentation mount astronomically as the boat will rapidly start to rust.
The U-boat U-534 was also sunk by the RAF in 1945, close to where U-3523 now lies. Its crew all evacuated that boat, meaning that she was not a grave when recovered from the sea in 1993 by Danish businessman Karsten Ree, allegedly in the somewhat incredible belief that it carried Nazi treasure. At a reported cost of £3m, the operation is thought to have been unprofitable. The boat contained nothing special, just the usual mundane objects carried on a U-boat at war.
Similar problems were experienced by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in the UK when it raised the Holland 1 submarine in 1982. In that case, the costs of long-term preservation proved much greater than anticipated after the initial rust-prevention treatment failed to stop the boat corroding. It had to be placed in a sealed tank full of alkali sodium carbonate solution for four years until the corrosive chloride ions had been removed, and was then transferred to a purpose-built exhibition building to protect it further.
The expensive process of raising more sunken submarines will add little to our knowledge of life at sea during World War II. But each time a U-boat is found, it places one more jigsaw piece in its correct place, giving us a clearer picture of the history of the U-boat wars. This is the true purpose of archaeology.
Recent research presented at a maritime archaeology conference has revealed at least 48 shipwrecks – including WWII ships and some post-war vessels – have been illicitly salvaged in Southeast Asia. This figure is an astonishing escalation from the handful of wrecks already known to have been damaged or destroyed.
Japan has lost the most wrecks. Other nations affected include Australia, America, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany and Sweden.
However, sources close to the issue suggest that the figure may be much higher still, with one Chinese company claiming to have salvaged over 1,000 wrecks in the South China Sea.
It is now a race against time to protect these wrecks and preserve the histories they embody. Museums can play a key role. For instance, exhibitions such as the Australian National Maritime Museum’s current Guardians of Sunda Strait testify to the continuing resonance of these ships’ stories even as the sites themselves are destroyed.
This exhibition, which looks at the WWII loss of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, is made more poignant by the fact that HMAS Perth, in particular, has been heavily salvaged in recent years.
The emotional echo of the stories of courage and sacrifice told here – such as that of HMAS Perth veteran Arthur Bancroft, who was shipwrecked not once but twice, and USS Houston’s Chaplain Rentz, who insisted a young signalman take his lifejacket after the ship sank – is amplified, not diminished, by the accompanying contemporary tragedy.
Some countries, such as the US, have enacted legislation to protect their sunken military craft, regardless of where they rest.
At an international level, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea states that, unless explicitly abandoned, a flag state (the country where the vessel is registered) is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction over shipwrecks. This is also irrespective of whether the vessel sank in foreign waters or not.
For ships that have not been completely destroyed, there is a strong case to be made for the recovery of “touchstone objects” such as the ship’s bell on naval vessels – an item with which every officer and sailor, irrespective of rank, would be familiar.
In 2002, in response to concerns about the illicit salvaging of British wrecks in Malaysian waters, a team of Royal Navy divers oversaw the recovery of the bell from HMS Prince of Wales. This vessel was part of British naval squadron Force Z, established to protect Britain’s colonial interests in Southeast Asia. The force was destroyed in 1941 by Japanese aircraft. Reports indicate that the illicit salvage of HMS Prince of Wales, as well as nearby HMS Repulse, is ongoing.
Such strategic recovery initiatives must be the prerogative of the flag state, and strict conditions would need to apply. In many countries, this would require legislative changes. In instances where sunken war vessels are known to be underwater graves, the recovery of objects would also need to be conducted in consultation with survivors and descendants.
Snapping the past
Although we now know that many wrecks have been damaged, there are still some that remain untouched and even unlocated. For instance, the whereabouts of Australia’s first submarine, AE1, remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, near Savo Island in the Solomon Islands, HMAS Canberra rests upright and intact at the bottom of “Ironbottom Sound”. Scuttled after a damaging encounter with the Japanese in August 1942, the wreck was located in 1992 by Robert Ballard (better known for his discovery of RMS Titanic).
There is also a mystery hanging over the ship: with some suggesting the possibility that it was the victim of friendly fire. It is not known whether HMAS Canberra is at risk from salvagers, but there is no question that the ship will eventually succumb to natural degradation.
Well-preserved wrecks such as HMAS Canberra are prime candidates for one of the most exciting developments in maritime archaeology: digital preservation through photogrammetry. This involves a diver or a remote-operated vehicle taking thousands of photographs of a wreck and its debris field. These images are then digitally “stitched together” to create 3D visualisations, reconstructions and even replicas.
There is significant potential for such technology in a museum environment, not least of all because it enables new audiences to virtually access wreck sites while eliminating the challenges of depth, currents and poor visibility. Photogrammetry also surmounts legal barriers to access.
Curtin University’s HIVE facility is using big data, sophisticated algorithms and the processing power of a supercomputer to digitally preserve the wrecks of HMAS Sydney, lost in 1941 with all on board, and the German ship that sank her, HSK Kormoran. These wrecks are protected sites under Australian legislation, and are not accessible by the general public.
Nor is photogrammetry limited to those with access to a supercomputer. Maritime archaeologist Matt Carter is currently developing a 3D model of the Japanese mini-submarine M-24, located off Sydney’s Bungan Head, using little more than high-resolution cameras, off-the-shelf software, and a lot of patience.
Gone, but not forgotten
The responsibilities of museums become more acute the more that heritage is threatened – not just by thieves and pirates, but by climate change, rising sea temperatures, the impact of both coastal and deep-sea development, and natural degradation. And, as with many terrestrial sites, underwater heritage is now increasingly threatened by the effects of tourism.
Heritage objects and sites are not ends in themselves. The real value of these things and places is in how they can be used to make meaning, to reflect on the past, and to translate and interpret it anew for future generations.
For me, the destruction of these 48 ships does not preclude their stories from being told. Illicit salvaging of underwater heritage, particularly the unauthorised disturbance of human remains, warrants strong condemnation.
But our ability to derive meaning from these wrecks is not diminished by their absence. Some scholars even go so far as to propose that the destruction of heritage, as distressing as it is, provides an incentive for more active and conscious forms of remembrance.