Fantome sparks a royal battle
By BOB STERNER
For Northeast Dive News
A site off Nova Scotia that had yielded an occasional 19th
century artifact to local divers with sharp eyes remains off limits
to divers and the Pennsylvania salvage company that would like
to positively identify the wreckage, while archeologists and
governments wrangle over who has rights its remains.
Sovereign Exploration Associates, Newtown, Pa., believes a
debris field the size of a football field includes what is left of the
HMS Fantome. The British Royal Navy brig was escorting a War
of 1812 convoy when it struck a shoal near Prospect on Nov.
24, 1814. When seeking permits from Nova Scotia a year ago,
Sovereign broadcasted plans to salvage the site. Its
announcement created a tsunami of controversy from
archeologists and governments from Britain to the United States,
flushing the project into limbo.
Whether the Fantome may contain a treasure is answered by a
commercial salvage company’s interest in it. But this is not just
the usual priceless lode of gold, silver and baubles. The Fantome’
s fleet was carrying back to Britain plunder from the White
House and the U.S. Treasury, taken during the fledgling nation’s
most embarrassing defeat.
British and Canadian soldiers had routed American soldiers from
the U.S. Capital, and looted the city. President Madison’s home
was torched along with all other public buildings. While Francis
Scott Key penned lyrics about “bombs bursting in air” for the
Star Spangled Banner invaders loaded loot aboard a fleet
augmented with the Industry and the Perseverance, two
schooners captured during the raid.
Dolley Madison recovered a portrait of Washington cast aside by
the marauders. More than a century later, President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt received a jewelry box in 1939 from an
anonymous Canadian, who apologized that his grandfather had
stolen it from Washington. These are the only known surviving
artifacts from the invasion.
Heading home to England, Commander Thomas Sykes ordered a
course to Sambro Light as the 384-ton, 94-foot long, two-
masted ship passed Cap La Have, Royal Navy records show.
That course proved shallow, so Sykes ordered a change south to
deeper water. His second order was not carried out, and the ship
along with some of her escorts ran hard aground. Crews safely
made shore. Sykes was reprimanded for putting too much faith
in his crew, the officers of which were more severely rebuked
with pay forfeitures.
No record shows that the Fantome carried any treasure. Nor is
there any proof that the site Sovereign seeks to explore is indeed
the resting place of the Fantome. However, cannon and musket
shot, coins, copper Royal Navy buttons, pottery and tools
suggest that it may be the site of the ill-fated convoy. While the
international company, traded on the Over The Counter
Exchange as SVXA, aims to profit from salvaging the site, it
hopes to contribute to historical knowledge as well.
Not so fast
Archeologists and governments reacted quickly to the salvor’s
plans to document and recover in Canadian water a Royal Navy
ship carrying U.S. loot. Never mind that the Royal Navy in 1810
commandeered the Fantome, which was built in 1809 in St.
Malo, France for a privateer. A pirate; fitting for today’s
struggle over the loot.
“We would want to work with both Canada and the U.K. to see
those artifacts returned to us,” the U.S. State Department
stated. The Smithsonian Institution quickly followed: “We
certainly did not give up title to those objects that were removed
by the British fleet,” curator Paul Johnston said. “Obviously the
historical value would be immeasurable.”
Britain quickly staked a claim as well to warships and their
contents, a stance being championed by the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO
supports nations’ rights to finds in other nations’ territorial
boundaries. The Fantome is in Canadian water.
Nova Scotia has drawn criticism from archeologists that its
maritime laws favor salvors over preservation. Yet the permits
sought by Sovereign would cede a 10 percent royalty to the
province for all valuable treasures sold and hand over all non-
valuable artifacts to the province for display in museums.
While scholars and bureaucrats on two continents clash over
the Fantome, Sovereign focused last summer on salvaging two
other holdings that are less contested. With luck, they’ll put
names on those wrecks while promoting wreck diving with
sales of their finds. And maybe someday we’ll again get to dive
that football field-sized site off Prospect, Nova Scotia, to see
what treasures the sea has deposited for all of us to see for free.
Washington looted above in woodcut.
Sortie's possible resting spot, below.