As a diver there is something about shipwrecks that brings up the hairs on the back of my neck so when I heard about HMS SUSSEX, its location and the wealth of gold and silver on it, it really peaked my interest!! So much so that I surfed the net to read a little of its history and was so interested in its story and how it ended its days so close to Gibraltar that I thought that it may be of interest to others, so here goes.
HMS SUSSEX was a large 80-gun warship it was the flag ship and the pride of the British Royal Navy. Launched from Chatham Dockyard on 11th April 1693, on its first major voyage she set sail from Portsmouth on 27th December 1693 with some 500 sailors’ aboard, heading south to take up station near Cadiz with orders to protect the Spanish ‘Plate’ fleet. It was the time of the Nine Years’ War and at that time France was the enemy. Spain was an ally, so the British fleet gave protection to the Spanish ships returning with precious cargos from the Philippines and from the Americas, going on to deliver to the Mediterranean ports. Escorting a fleet of 48 warships protecting 166 merchant ships to the Mediterranean, but captain Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler also had a secret mission; to deliver a large sum of money to the Duke of Savoy, a payoff for the Duke’s military support of Britain in the war against France.
Locked in a series of ironclad chests stowed in the hold was one million pounds in gold coins, which would weigh in at over 10 tons and an additional 100 tons of silver also worked gold and other artefacts. At today’s market it would be worth in excess of two and a half billion pounds sterling.
On the19th February the third day of a savagely strong easterly storm the fleet was caught one day out from Gibraltar and facing the risk of being forced against the rocky Spanish coastline attempted to tack into the wind and tuck back behind Gibraltar. But water entered the open gun ports and the end came swiftly, while the Admiral slept, she sank just a few miles out from Gibraltar and to a depth of 1,000 meters. Only two persons “Turks” survived the sinking and several days later the fleet Admiral Francis Wheeler’s body, clad in a nightshirt, washed up on shore. The funds never reached the Duke; He accepted instead a payment from the French for his support, thus changing the course of the war and of subsequent European history.
NOW how the ship was discovered was a researcher showed a diplomatic letter written shortly after the Sussex went down mentioning the small fortune to a company based in Tampa Florida in 1995. That company was Odyssey Marine Exploration they hired researchers to sieve through archives in England, France, the Netherlands and the USA for any clues as to the cargo and its final resting place.
Then in 1998 Odyssey conducted an offshore search and survey operation off the coast of Andalucía, Southern Spain for over 2 years. During this operation by Odyssey there were 418 other sites found several ancient shipwrecks including the ‘Melkarth’ an ancient shipwreck covered by ceramic jars and amphorae (an ancient Greek/Roman clay jar for holding wine or oil) from about the 3rd to 5th Century BC. Then in 2001, using two search ships, two remote-controlled robots and state-of-the-art equipment, they meticulously combed the ocean floor covering 1,000 square kilometres until they came across two anchors and 19 canons at a depth of about 900 meters (2,953 feet). One of the canons was raised and identified, with near certainty, as being part of the three-masted ship.
However, since then to my knowledge the wreck has not been dived on again dew to arguments on ownership mainly from Spain and England Authorities but also including Panamanian Authorities and the American company involved.
The last I saw of the Odyssey was on Thursday 12th July when it was been arrested by the Guardia Civil helped by the Spanish navy and was taken to the port of Algeciras. Obviously, there is more to come on this story!
Back to the diver in me, the only thing I keep trying to work out is how long I would get at that depth! What’s a bit of pressure when there’s all that treasure just lying there waiting to be picked up, however if you really wanted to give it ago the closest you could do is by remote control, and then you would need one of these little beauties like the one from ODYSSEY.
So, I think I’ll just have to stick to dreaming about finding sunken treasure on my next dive!!! (But maybe in a little shallower water than the Sussex and nothing to do with Spain).