Category Archives: Shipwrecks – General
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.
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.
Guardians of Sunda Strait will be on at the Australian National Maritime Museum until November 19.
The final fate of the expedition led by Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de La Pérouse, has been a mystery ever since the frigates L’Astrolabe and La Boussole sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788, vanishing, it seemed, into the vastness of the Pacific.
The expedition left the French port of Brest in 1785. The two vessels, with a complement of 225 officers, crew and scientists, were crammed with supplies and trade goods for a four-year long Pacific voyage that sought to emulate the feats of discovery of Captain James Cook. King Louis XVI took a personal interest in the undertaking and helped draft the plans and itinerary.
La Pérouse also had orders to investigate the new British colony in Australia. He arrived off Botany Bay, New South Wales in January 1788 to see Arthur Philip’s First Fleet at anchor, and so witnessed the beginning of European settlement of the continent. For six weeks the French camped on the northern shores of the Bay: the area now home to the south-eastern Sydney suburb bearing his name.
Before departing Australia to continue his voyage, La Pérouse left letters with the British for forwarding to the French Naval Ministry. In them he detailed how he planned to leave the Pacific Ocean via Torres Strait, the narrow waterway separating Australia and New Guinea, and be back in France by June 1789. Concern mounted when they did not arrive as expected. In 1791 the French National Assembly commissioned an expedition to search for the overdue navigator, without success. It is said that King Louis XVI, on his way to the guillotine in 1793, enquired of his captors “Is there news of La Pérouse?”
A dogged Irish captain finally solved the puzzle almost four decades later. In 1826 Peter Dillon saw European objects at Tikopia in the Solomon Islands, which locals told him came from a nearby island called Vanikoro. He suspected they were from La Pérouse’s ships. Eventually, he was given command of the survey vessel Research and arrived at Vanikoro in 1827, going on to learn the awful fate of L’Astrolabe and La Boussole: both frigates had smashed against the island’s fringing reef during a storm. Artefacts collected by Dillon were taken to Paris where they were identified as belonging to the expedition vessels.
The Vanikoro Islanders also related how survivors from Le Pérouse’s ships had spent several months constructing a small two-masted schooner, using timber salvaged from wreckage and hewn from the island’s dense forests. Once completed, they launched the vessel and sailed away.
What became of this vessel and its crew, desperate to return to France, has been an ongoing mystery. Subsequent books and articles about La Pérouse have asked the same questions: did the vessel even make it out of the Vanikoro lagoon, or was it attacked by locals in canoes? If it did get away, did it founder and sink beneath the waves? Or did the survivors die of thirst or starvation at sea? Or did they again suffer shipwreck elsewhere in the Pacific?
Read more: Transit of Venus: a tale of two expeditions
An Indian newspaper article from 1818 can perhaps shed light on the fate of the Vanikoro escape vessel. The December 1818 issue of The Madras Courier related how, in September that year, the ships Claudine and Mary, bound for Calcutta from Sydney, anchored off Murray Island in the Torres Strait Islands. There they rescued a castaway Indian seaman, Shaik Jumaul, who had survived the sinking of the merchant ship Morning Star four years earlier off the north Queensland coast.
On board the Mary, Shaik Jumaul was interviewed about his experiences on the island. He reported that he had seen swords and muskets on the islands, “differently made from English”, as well as a compass and a gold watch. When he asked the Islanders where they had obtained these things, an old man explained how thirty years earlier a ship was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, within sight of Murray Island. White men had come from her in boats, but in the fighting that followed all were killed except a boy, who was spared and brought up as one of their own.
The expedition crew list includes a ship’s boy, François Mordelle, from the port town of Tréguier in Brittany, northwestern France. Could this be last survivor of the La Pérouse expedition?
The article featuring the castaway’s account was reproduced in several other newspapers of the day, in Australia, Britain, France and other countries, and observers noted that this might refer to the La Pérouse expedition. Somehow, Shaik Jamaul’s story was largely forgotten in subsequent years.
The chronology fits nicely, for it was 30 years earlier, in late 1788 or early 1789, that the La Pérouse survivors departed Vanikoro in their small vessel. Furthermore, historians are not aware of any other European ship in the region at that time.
Torres Strait, which includes the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is studded with reefs, rocks and sandbars. It has been described as a “graveyard of ships”, as over 120 vessels are known to have come to grief in its treacherous waters. The vessel reported by Shaik Jumaul is the earliest known shipwreck in the Strait and indeed, eastern Australia.
Could it be that the final phase of the La Pérouse expedition ended in tragedy in northern Australia? Future recovery of artefacts from the wreck site on the Great Barrier Reef – yet to be discovered – or the islands, will hopefully provide final confirmation.
One La Pérouse mystery, however, will likely remain unsolved.
The Murray Islanders showed Shaik Jamaul the young castaway’s clothing, and cried as they recalled how he, together with two young girls, left the island one night in a canoe. His island friends searched for them, but they were never seen again. Was he seeking to return to France? Did he suffer an accident at sea? Or was he shipwrecked elsewhere a third and final time?
A last crewman, a survivor, a castaway. Though his identity and fate are unknown, he is not lost to memory.
This Thursday is World Oceans Day and so critical are the issues facing our oceans – including climate change and plastic pollution – that the United Nations has convened a high-level conference on their future. While its focus is ocean conservation, another aspect of our seas has been conspicuously neglected: the vast array of human history lying underwater.
Millions of shipwrecks and archaeological sites lie under the ocean, including most infamously the Titanic, resting almost four kilometres below the North Atlantic. These relics are just as important as terrestrial sites such as the Egyptian pyramids or the temples of Angkor, and preserve a history of our relationship to the seas. Just like marine ecosystems, this underwater cultural heritage is threatened by climate change, pollution, development, fishing and looting.
Indeed just this week, Australian and Indonesian maritime archaeologists reported that HMAS Perth, a World War II wreck lying in the Sunda Strait and the final resting place for hundreds of men, has suffered extensive and recent damage. There is now less than half of the ship left.
Stories from the sea
Humanity’s close relationship with the ocean stretches back thousands of years. Our oceans have provided food, connected civilisations, facilitated trade, travel and conquest, and also served as a sacred place of veneration. It’s estimated that three million ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities lie on the ocean floor.
These include a 9th century shipwreck discovered off Indonesia’s Belitung island in 1998. The ship originated in the Middle East, and its cargo was dominated by commercial quantities of Chinese ceramics. It represents some of the earliest evidence of maritime trade between Southeast Asia, the Chinese Tang dynasty and the Middle Eastern Abbasid Empire.
Nor are these vestiges of the past restricted to shipwrecks. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of sunken civilisations, buried under silt and sand for centuries. In Egypt, relics of the ancient city of Alexandria include temples, palaces, and the 130-metre Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Egyptian authorities now plan to construct an underwater museum to share these discoveries with a broader audience.
Sometimes, the smallest of objects discovered underwater can reveal as much as an entire city. Lost for centuries in waters off Crete, the 2000-year old Antikythera mechanism is known as the world’s first computer for its use of gears and dials to predict eclipses and track moon phases. The same site has also yielded human bones, from which scientists hope to be able to extract genetic information for insights into ancient shipwreck victims.
Mother-of-pearl inlays – gathered by early breath hold divers and fashioned by artisans – found at a Mesopotamian site indicate that humans have been responding creatively to the ocean’s resources as far back as 4,500 BCE.
Underwater heritage is the legacy of these past activities, bearing witness to the development of both ancient and modern civilisations. But the significance of ocean artefacts extends beyond trade, travel and recreation. For example, the study of this heritage can show us the impact of rising sea levels on human life. Such information serves as a sobering reminder of the effects of climate change, and can also help us to develop solutions to the present environmental problems we are facing.
Ulrike Guérin from the UNESCO Secretariat of the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage explains:
For 90% of human existence, sea levels have been lower than they are at present. As humans mainly lived close to the water, a large majority of humanity’s development took place on areas that are now submerged. It is only within the past decade that there has been recognition of how important the missing data on the submerged shelf is.
Underwater cultural heritage can also help to assess the impact of the ocean on human life, and assist in monitoring issues such as potential ocean pollution from oil and the threat of unexploded ammunition from WWII shipwrecks. Guérin argues that protecting and researching this heritage can lead to better conservation of coastal and marine areas, with increased economic benefits for small island developing states and least developed countries through tourism.
An ocean without history?
Like fish stocks and coral reefs, underwater cultural heritage faces destruction from climate change, marine pollution and over-development. Industrial activities like fishing are becoming a greater concern.
Commercial deep-sea fishing trawlers destroy not only fishing stocks but also well-preserved wrecks. These bottom trawl nets act like ploughs, digging up the ocean bed and tearing archaeological sites apart. In the Baltic Sea, thousands of synthetic fishing nets are lost every year. These “ghost nets” get tangled in wrecks, trapping fish and seals in the process. In Southeast Asia, historic shipwrecks in both Malaysia and Thailand face destruction from “massive trawl nets that scour every metre of the seabed”.
Just as fishing stocks are targeted by illegal poachers, so too is underwater heritage threatened by illegal salvaging and looting. The recent unauthorized disturbance of three near-pristine Japanese shipwrecks in Malaysian waters has destroyed the thriving marine ecosystems that such wrecks support. The damage caused to these underwater museums has had a devastating impact on local diving companies and small-scale fishermen. In Indonesia, these illicit activities appear to be becoming increasingly sophisticated and audacious, including the most recent damage to HMAS Perth.
Heritage in the margins
Despite its importance, underwater cultural heritage remains a relatively new concept, and tends to be overshadowed by other legal and policy priorities. At this week’s UN oceans conference in New York, plenary meetings are focusing on reducing marine pollution, protecting marine and coastal ecosystems, and addressing ocean acidification. Underwater cultural heritage, meanwhile, was discussed in a side event held in the margins.
The 2001 underwater heritage convention establishes basic principles for protecting these sites, but faces a number of challenges. Only 56 nations have signed or ratified the convention, and big maritime nations such as the US, China, and the UK have not. Australia has not ratified, but introduced new underwater cultural heritage legislation in November 2016 that brings this step closer. The heritage convention also faces the problem of perceived competition with the Law of the Sea, which sets the rules for how the oceans are shared and governed.
And what of HMAS Perth? In a strange twist of history, in the 1970s the Australian Embassy in Jakarta became aware that the bell of the ship had turned up in an Indonesian salvage yard. The embassy successfully negotiated the bell’s exchange, and it is now held in the Australian War Memorial: a small piece of history saved through cultural diplomacy.
Underwater cultural heritage is an essential part of our oceans and the way we relate to them. As important as it is to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans, it is also vital that we understand humanity’s historical relationship with them. Our future is invested in our oceans, and so is our past.
Seventy five years ago this month, Australia, the UK, US and the Netherlands suffered a series of disastrous naval defeats against Japan in the narrow straits and seas around Indonesia. The warship wrecks in the Java Sea and the Sunda Strait are the final resting place for thousands of Allied sailors.
The sites are considered war graves by survivors and their descendants, following a long maritime tradition of respecting human remains on shipwrecks.
So it was with shock and deep disappointment that an international team surveying the Java Sea wrecks in November 2016 found that at least four Dutch and British shipwrecks – and one American submarine whose entire crew was captured alive – had simply vanished from the seabed some 70 metres below.
The ships were enormous – the HMS Exeter, for example, was a 175-metre heavy cruiser, longer than three Olympic-sized swimming pools. Other Allied ships in Indonesian waters have also been damaged.
The evidence suggests that the missing ships were stolen, or salvaged, for the valuable metal now sitting on the sea floor.
The recent desecration of the Java Sea naval wrecks was unsurprising to those familiar with the state of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. Last year, Inside Indonesia reported on measures being taken to mitigate damage to two other Allied wrecks in Indonesia: HMAS Perth and USS Houston in the Sunda Strait, west of Jakarta. These naval ships were attacked by a Japanese fleet in the early hours of March 1 1942, sinking with over a thousand lives lost between them.
In 2013, reports emerged of salvage barges removing scrap metal from the sites. Although Indonesian authorities were not identified as participating in the salvage operations, they were criticised for not doing more to protect the wrecks.
Well-meaning recreational divers have also been implicated. Commenting on the removal of a trumpet from USS Houston, the Executive Director of the USS Houston Survivors’ Association said:
We have no idea of the untold number of other divers who have pilfered our ship […] and have kept relics retrieved for their own personal use, “stealing” that which truly belong [sic] to the lasting memory of the bravery and dedication of the men who served on these warships.
Advocacy groups in Australia have long called on authorities to protect HMAS Perth. While a recent sonar scan confirmed that USS Houston was largely intact, results for HMAS Perth were inconclusive. Australian and Indonesian divers are due to return to HMAS Perth next month. Despite these efforts, some feel that it is already too late to protect HMAS Perth.
Why steal a ship?
Naval shipwrecks mean huge amounts of scrap metal, with huge potential re-sale value. The sheer quantity of scrap metal on a naval ship means that a single wreck can be worth up to A$1 million. The bronze propellers alone are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.
It is unlikely that the salvage was conducted in complete secrecy. The Java Sea wrecks lay close to one of Indonesia’s largest naval bases, and suspicious activity – not to mention visible environmental impacts such as oil spills – is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by passing marine craft.
Removing a shipwreck from the seabed requires time, know-how, and money. Salvage operations in southeast Asia appear to have become increasingly sophisticated.
Boats disguised as fishing vessels have been used elsewhere in the region. But my conversations with people close to the issue suggest that the Java Sea wrecks were likely removed using a major surface platform known as a claw barge. This reduces the need to rely on large numbers of divers, and, if operated together with specialist imaging equipment such as a sonar scanner, would maximise the efficiency of the salvage. It is also believed that the crew were armed.
The salvagers gave little-to-no consideration to objects of historical or archaeological significance.
The removal of propellers and trumpets is one thing. But the desecration of submerged war graves is undoubtedly the most troubling aspect of this story.
The presence of human remains on the wrecks does not deter illicit salvagers from their nefarious activities. However, the legal status of underwater war graves is ambiguous.
There is no international consensus on military human remains on sunken warships, and the onus is on states to make appropriate provisions for war grave recognition. Under Indonesian legislation, objects older than 50 years can be considered as cultural heritage. However, none of the wrecks mentioned in this article have been officially recognised – in fact, not a single underwater site has been heritage listed.
The international community has condemned the disappearance of the Java Sea wrecks, with the Dutch launching an immediate investigation. The UK Ministry of Defence also expressed serious concern about “unauthorised disturbance of any wreck containing human remains”, and requested that Indonesian authorities take “appropriate action”.
When the news broke that the ships had vanished, the head of Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (National Archaeological Centre of Indonesia), Bambang Budi Utomo, was quoted as saying:
The Dutch government cannot blame the Indonesian government because they never asked us to protect those ships. As there was no agreement or announcement, when the ships go missing, it is not our responsibility.
Chief of Indonesia’s Navy Information Office, Colonel Gig Jonias Mozes Sipasulta, confirmed Indonesia’s view that the Dutch, British and US governments should have done more to protect the wrecks:
The Indonesian navy cannot monitor all areas all the time. If they ask why the ships are missing, I’m going to ask them back, why didn’t they guard the ships?
Although Indonesia quickly committed to investigating the mystery of the missing wrecks, these initial messages undoubtedly caused further damage to Indonesia’s already-problematic reputation in conserving underwater heritage.
Rather than trading diplomatic blows, Indonesia and the nations that the ships belong to must work together.
Indonesian researchers have been working on the HMAS Perth since 2015, assessing its condition and vulnerability.
The results confirm that the wreck has been damaged by salvagers. There are other threats too, including overly-enthusiastic recreational divers, sea sand mining operations, shipping traffic, and marine pollution from coastal development in nearby Banten Bay.
Last year, researchers conducted local sessions to raise awareness of the sites, which they believe is key to reducing damage to the site. The project team is also considering introducing a maritime conservation area around the HMAS Perth site. Other suggestions include public display signs and expanding commemoration activities to include coastal communities.
There are also efforts being made to increase awareness within the broader population. In Jakarta, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries’ new Marine Heritage Gallery will bring underwater objects to both government officials and the general public.
In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s busiest maritime trading destinations, there are plans to open a Regional Training Centre for Underwater Cultural Heritage inside Makassar’s historic Fort Rotterdam.
Internationally, the United Nations’ Ocean Conference will convene in New York in June with the aim of reversing the decline in the health of the world’s oceans. So far underwater cultural heritage is not on the agenda. It is up to UN members to ensure that these issues, and not just marine life, get their time in the spotlight.
Sunken warships have both historical and emotional significance. They must be valued for more than the sale of their parts.
The link below is to an article reporting on progress to unearth and exhibit the remains of shipwrecks found off the Turkish coast.
The link below is to an article reporting on a plan to investigate some 88 unrecorded pre-1840 shipwreck sites around the United Kingdom.