A good and just law for shipwreck heritage
‘Only a small part of what once existed was buried in the ground; only a part of what was buried has escaped the destroying hand of time; of this part all has not yet come to light again; and we know only too well how little of what has come to light has been of service for our science.' - Oscar Montelius, The Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times, 1888
Standing as the only visible signpost in the west on the trans-Atlantic crossroads from the Caribbean to the Old World of Spain and the other countries of western Europe, Bermuda and its waters, being also an impediment of reefs in that eastward passage, became the burial place of many a hapless ship and intrepid mariner. Over the course of the Age of Sail, in the case of Bermuda starting after its discovery in late 1505 by the eponymous Juan and ending with the advent of the Steam Age around the time of the American Civil War, the island become a sunken repository of shipwreck heritage, holding the remains of perhaps several hundred vessels.
Given that sea travel from the Age of Discovery onwards encircled the world, after Magellan if you will, the shipwreck heritage embedded in Bermuda's reefs is international heritage, ‘World Heritage' you might say, and thus it fell to the Island to preserve that heritage which belongs to all peoples. For many years, we fulfilled that responsibility less than adequately, with much heritage being destroyed and not much being retained in the public domain, due to the inadequacies of a law promulgated in 1959, apparently composed with serious input from treasure hunters. The Act was slanted to their benefit and not that of the country or the world, and thus the possession of much of that shipwreck heritage passed into private hands.
That world changed with the enactment by the Progressive Labour Party government, under Premier (now Dame) Jennifer Smith, JP, MP, of the Historic Wrecks Act 2001. That good and just law for shipwreck heritage mandates that all work carried out on the remaining sites be done by the scientific methods of archaeology and that artifacts and material found belong to the Government, which is also entitled to copies of all records made during the work. Those collections of artifacts and records are ultimately to form the ‘National Collection' of shipwreck heritage, to be preserved, studied and shared on behalf of the people of Bermuda and the wider world.
Since 1975, when shipwreck artifacts at the Bermuda Aquarium were transferred to Dockyard, the Maritime Museum (now the National Museum) became the de facto custodian of what then comprised “the national collection” and has spent several millions building an essential conservation laboratory and curating and exhibiting those collections, along with materials the Museum and associated groups, such as the Sea Venture Trust and university field schools, have excavated since 1982, when modern archaeology methods were introduced into the process of examining shipwrecks in Bermuda.
Just as has occurred in the fields of natural heritage, there has been a paradigm shift, particularly with younger generations that have grown up in a much more environmentally aware age, with regard to many forms of heritage, as witnessed recently in the arrest of a person for taking protected sea mollusks. Many people now appreciate that we are trustees of the heritage we inherit on this Earth and that we all have a duty to protect and preserve such heritage for the future. Bermuda, due to its size, has a smaller bank of heritage than larger places, but we have very significant such assets in the natural arena, in shipwrecks, fortifications, domestic and official architecture, the World Heritage Site of the Town of St. George's and the old Royal Naval Dockyard, to name some of the fixed ones. These assets are worth their weight in gold and more in a ‘National Cultural Heritage Tourism Plan', were they but fully appreciated, invested in and advertised to the potential coterie of discerning visitors.
Archaeology is the scientific method by which information can be recovered, extracted if you will, from shipwreck sites, as well as sites on land, which has been admirably demonstrated by the recent discovery and excavation of uncorked wine bottles on the Civil War blockade runner Mary Celestia, or the finding and recording of Governor Bruere's earthly remains under the floorboards of St. Peter's Church, or recent work on the 1619 wreck of the ship Warwick. Archaeological excavation and essentially, recording, provides the context of the discoveries, without which much of the historical value of sites would be lost.
Under the Historic Wrecks Act 2001, which was modelled on the 2001 UNESCO “Convention on Underwater Heritage”, shipwrecks must be examined by archaeological methods and the objects found remain in the possession of Government and are thus added to the National Collection. In the fullness of time, the National Collection could be a much-enhanced factor in Cultural Tourism, on exhibit for the visiting public, as well as all local residents. As the famous Swedish archaeologist, Oscar Montelius, intimated many decades ago, unless such heritage is recovered by archaeological methods, it is of little use to science and history, as its context has not been recovered along with the portable artifacts.
It is an archaeology principle that such heritage collections should not be split up or sold off, for again their value to science, and indeed to Bermuda and international communities, would be diminished, as they are unavailable for future research, exhibition and other heritage uses. In this, the tenth anniversary year of the 2001 Act, Bermuda's shipwreck heritage continues to be enhanced and we, as a people, are fulfilling our duty as trustees of this important, international, form of cultural legacy that has accidentally come to rest on our shores.
As was pointed out to the United Kingdom Government recently by the Society of Antiquaries of London (the world's premier archaeological society), “Heritage's contribution to national life [is] due to its value through tourism, heritage is not simply a luxury or pleasant recreational pastime, but an integral part of the country's future prosperity”.
The Historic Wrecks Act 2001 is seen by other countries and institutions as an exemplary law, and bought Bermuda into the company of other enlightened lands that also so preserve their underwater cultural heritage which is ours as well, since it is also international. On this tenth anniversary, congratulations are due to the Government for its farsighted enactment of that law and for its work to carry out the mandate of the Act with the appointment of a Custodian of Historic Wrecks several years ago.
Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PhD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director[AT]bmm.bm or 704-5480.