Shipwreck Legislation In Bermuda: A short overview.


From Salvage to Science


The development of Legislation pertaining to the management of shipwrecks in Bermuda has always been a reflection of their value to the wider society. In broad terms Bermuda’s legislation has dealt with shipwrecks in terms of their salvage from the 1600’s until the 1950’s then shifting to the management of “shipwreck exploration” and today is concerned with the management of their archaeological study.

The salvaging of shipwrecks has been a distinctly Bermudian activity since Sir George Somers built the Deliverance and the Patience from the salvage of the Sea Venture wrecked in 1609. In 1619 Bermuda’s first Governor arrived, Nathanial Butler, and became heavily engaged in salvage , salvaging not only the ship he arrived on, the Warwick, but also at his turn the Sea Venture . Richard Norwood arrived in 16? with a diving bell for pearl shell diving and wreck salvage. Governor Chaddock arrived in 16? and immediately had two boats built one with a giant capstan or crane purpose built to recover canon and heavier objects from the many shipwrecks around Bermuda, salvaging so many in one area of the wreck strewn reefs to the west of the island that it is still named “Chaddock Bar”.

Salvage remained an important economic activity into the 1950’s with the government commissioning the salvage of non ferrous metals from shipwrecks to meet shortages of supply post WWII and to improve the country’s balance of payments.

This last period of concerted salvage coincided with the emergence of an interest in shipwrecks that were far older than those useful for salvage. The development of SCUBA (self contained underwater breathing apparatus) started in the world ,and in Bermuda, a new wave of underwater activity alongside salvage, better characterized as exploration and/or treasure hunting, and a wide range Bermuda’s best seamen and fishermen turned their attention to early shipwrecks that had been literally lost in the sands of time.

It is perhaps a reflection of how deeply shipwrecks are embedded in our national psyche that as developments in modern maritime navigation reduced the numbers of new shipwrecks arriving on our reefs Bermudians began to explore those that first arrived.

As Bermuda explored her past the world watched and celebrated our discoveries. Bermuda shipwrecks and their explorers featured in the pages of renowned international magazines such as National Geographic and Life and were the inspiration for Hollywood movies. Treasure hunting and exploration moved the intrinsic value of the materials used to make objects found on shipwrecks to the objects themselves and the value of these objects only increased with historical knowledge about them. Explorers’ interest in shipwrecks lay not only in locating and recovering their contents but also in establishing the history and provenance of what they were finding.

To their traditional knowledge of the waters and reef around Bermuda and their experience with boats these salvors/explorers/treasure hunters added passions for history, oceanography and ancient shipbuilding and began in earnest to reconstruct critical elements of the history of the remains of the ships they were finding.

Bermudian explorers teamed up with renowned international maritime historians and began researching in the worlds archives and developing a certain discipline and rigor in their research of ships. Their experiments in the location, collection, and preservation of shipwreck artifacts became the precursors of modern maritime archaeology.

Just as the sciences of marine biology, oceanography and other detailed sciences that explore and evaluate our natural ecosystems grew out of early 20th century naturalists activities, so did marine archaeology grow out of the work and activities of salvors treasure hunters and explorers in the middle part of the 20th century.

In the 1970’s and 80’s Bermudians established the Bermuda Maritime Museum and the Sea Venture Trust to begin applying in earnest the tools of the new discipline of marine archaeology, shifting the focus from exploration to historical preservation; spearheading another important shift in societies appreciation of the value of Bermuda’s historic shipwrecks.

In the last 400 years societies perception of shipwrecks has moved from objects of salvage - to objects of exploration - to objects of intense scientific scrutiny. We have also seen the legislation in Bermuda reflect these shifts; transitioning from dealing with shipwrecks as items for salvage - to objects of historical value worthy of exploration - to treating them solely as objects for scientific enquiry. The legislative changes of the 20th Century show the greatest shift in focus. In 1959 salvage legislation began treating “Historic wrecks” as a separate category with special rules managing the activities of salvors treasure hunters and explorers thereon and over the next 40 years the legislation was amended to reflect the evolving understanding of the value of shipwreck preservation and the science of shipwreck research.

In 2001 the legislation concerning shipwrecks was separated completely from that of salvage. This Legislation was formulated expressly to guarantee that all exploration on shipwrecks be carried out to the highest scientific archaeological standard, with direct Government oversight, and with all information being shared with the public. This new Legislation reflects today’s overriding concern with the historical value of historic wreck sites and the preservation of Bermuda’s maritime heritage.

Philippe Max Rouja PhD

Custodian Of Historic Wrecks