How Many Portholes does the Country Need?

A review of the Australian Historic Shipwreck Legislation (1976) by Rick Latimer, South Pacific Divers, as published by Dive Log Australia, April 1996

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Picture of Rick Latimer 1992 TWENTY YEARS on, is a review of the above legislation called for? Should we critically look at what has been accomplished, including successes and failures to determine the legislation's relevance to the community? And just what has been gained for divers, being the people usually responsible for locating wrecks in the first place? Is a review called for? I believe so.

Since the first Europeans found Australia, most trade was carried out by sea and that maritime history which includes 1oses and disasters at sea is well worth preserving for future generations. With the introduction of scuba diving in the late 1950's divers naturally discovered wrecks. Exploring them and removing items became popular over the next 20 years with some divers building extensive collections. Tbe sad part, in hindsight, was no records were kept of what was taken, the relevant wreck, or who had the item, apart from the avid wreck diver. Subsequently many items, some possibly historic or relevant to our maritime history have now disappeared or are lying forgotten in some garage and will never be recovered.

By 1976 divers were researching wrecks on a ever increasing scale, particularly the Dutch wrecks in Western Australia and, if the truth is known, the bullion carried in those wrecks was the real catalyst behind the Historic Shipwreck Legislation and also responsible for the "nightmare" that divers and statutory authorities still find themselves embroiled in today. (See WA court records, Allan Robinson V the WA Museum or a book, "Treasure is not for the finder" absolutely facinating reading). The academics catch cry to justify the legislation is that each wrecksite forms a time capsule having unique knowledge of the relevant period. Believe that and you might as well believe in the tooth fairy.

The federal legislation implemented in 1976 with subsequent amendments has resulted in thousands of wrecks in Australian waters being classified as historic, as each state in time adopted this legislation. I am personally unaware of any wreck diver, particularly those keenly interested in wreck and involved in archeology associations of the time, belng asked to provide input or attend any discussion prior to the 1976 legeslation being enacted.

We now bave some 2000 "historic" wrecks in NSW and that number grows each year because every wreck older than 75 years is automatically declared. This seems ridiculous! Similarly any item recovered from a wreck must be declared and surrendered, if required, to the relevant authority in each state as a wreck's 75th birthday falls due. Nice way to start a collection without cost. Will stamp and coin collections be legislated next? Most state deptartments responsible for the implementation of the legislation only have a minimal staff of two or three and are hard pressed to even look at the declared sites let alone conduct any significant maritime archaeology work on even just one site. It certainly makes you wonder, when you consider that the greatest maritime power, the world has ever seen, England, and at the focal point of world maritime trade for centuries has just 36 declared historic wrecks.

The criteria for a wreck to be declared historic under the act are; being significant in the discovery, early exploration, settlement and development of Australia; - it's relevance to a particular place, person, or event of historical importance; - a possible source of relics of historical or cultural significance; - the vessel is representative of a particular design or devclopment; - navel wrecks. Actually the majority of vessels wrecked in Australian waters were in trade rather than discovery or enploration, were built and registered overseas, were not unique in design and were well documented as to construction. (They managed to build the replica of the Endeavour from archives, didn't they?)

Accounts of Australian shipping losses are also well documented as our European history, being one of the youngest nations in the world, was recorded from day one. This includes cargo and passengers carried, and the vessels' general movements, which were of prime importance and interest to the public in our colonial period. Don't forget that then, as now, the majority of cargo inbound was overseas manufactured goods while cargo outbound was mainly raw materials such as minerals or primary produce.

The S.S. Satar is a case in point. British built, crewed and registered, she sank in 1910 off Seal Rocks after striking a reef. She was carrying coal from Newcastle to Singapore and unless records are incorrect did not have "Dame Nellie Melba" on a voyage of discovery or settlement as a passenger. Today if one needs to find details of her movements in Australia, one need look no further than the Mitchell Library [in Sydney]. As to her specifications and construction, the National Maritime Museum, London, is only too happy to provide relevant details having the relevant documents on hand including those of two sister ships. I'm reasonably sure that if I ask nicely I could obtain a sample of her cargo from anybody in Newcastle or alternatively pick up a piece from the side of the road along the coal truck route. And all this withoul getting my feet wet, yet alone having to resort to legislation.

Rick on Catterthun Another classic is the S.S. Catherthun sunk in similar circumstances and location as the Santara. British built she at least was Australian owned and taking a mixed cargo (mainly wool) to the Far East having 7 Caucasian passengers along with 15 Chinese in steerage returning home from the goldfields. It was stated by one academic that the reason she is classifed historic is that it would provide insight into the Chinese contribution to Australia in the gold rush period. Unbelievable! One would have thought that contemporary accounts could furnish far better insight than trying an archaeology dig in 65 metres underwater. Given that any Government enterprise would require a full commercial diving operation due to the depth, one can only speculate on the cost of trying to find out what the hell 15 Chinese had in their suitcases, (apart from gold that is).

Considering the meagre funding and resources available wouldn't it be more logical to limit legislative protection to those wrecks truly relevant in our maritime history. This can be achieved by the examination of archival records alone. The rest of what some call "hysteric" wrecks can then be left for divers to locate, explore, and recover items for which they are recognised as the owner. Items recovered should be reported to the relevant department in each state for assessment then placed on a register. In return the relevant deptartment could give guidance as to conservation and restoration of the item. These items can then be used for displays, if required. Actually if the government is all that interested in relics of historical and cultural significance then one wonders why they are not out searching the Balmain antique shops on a Saturday morning with cheque book at the ready. It's easier than having to do search, recovery and restoration on items from some 2000 wrecks in New South Wales.

Possibly the best example of the Historic Shipwreck legislation in action is the recent discovery of the Myola. The Myola was a typical 1913, British built 60 miler of approximately 600 gross tons carrying coal between Newcastle, Sydney, and Wollongong. Lost in 1919 she was discovered in 1995 with all manner of items such as portholes, telegraphs, helm, bell etc... just lying where they fell as the ship deteriorated. Peter Fields, co-finder with John Riley, gave an interesting account of dealing with the "bureaucratic jungle" (edited description for those who know Pete). There was no problem with reporting the wreck however the problems really started when they attempted to gain permission to recover the ships bell. Their reason being twofold - to positively identify the wreck and concern that it would be pilfered by others - justifiable reasons as it tuned out). The initial reaction was that nothing was to be moved on site. Another suggestion, that high profile items be marked in situ was rejected out of hand as again interfering with the wreck site. After further time consuming preparation, they then had to present a case to the relevant government committee including having an archaeologist to support the proposal after which a 3 week permit was then granted to recover the bell.

One condition of the recovery was that the bell then had to be consened by an approved conservator. Well ! ! ! Would you believe approved conservators must be the most qualified people in Australia, as well as relatives of Ned Kelly. Quotes ranged from an initial staggering $25,000 which eventually firmed to a set $5,100 from parties in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. This cartel was eventually broken by a local party for $3,000 after much bargaining. I don't know about anybody else but that cost seems ridiculous considering that the bell could have been conserved by any commercial labontory for less than $500 or D.I.Y [do it yourself] for $100. Considering that every thing was done correctly and in accordance with the legislation there was no help to the finders regarding this cost. What added insult to injury was that within a fairly short time after publication of the wrecks location the majority of other items were removed by persons unknown. I'll bet they didn't go to a licensed conservator. Rewards for finding a historic wreck aren't incentive orientated. In the case of the "Myola" it was a plaque presested by the minister. In the case of a West Australian shipwreck with some $250,000 in silver (weight only) on board it was $5,000, later raised to $20,000 following a public outcry. Is this why one hears persistent rumours of other bullion wrecks in W.A. that have been found and not declared? I also wonder if virtually all the other N.S.W. 60 milers had not been declared and the Myola was declared as a pristine example of a 60 miler wreck, what the reaction would have been from divers. Asking my contemporaries, the consensus was that that such a situation would have been strongly supported to the extent that anybody observed removing any artifacts would have been reported.

Deco stop Some state deptartments have also gained much notoriety from the manner in which they conduct their affairs with divers. Witness the much publicised raids on selected Victorian wreck divers having well known collections gathered and conserved over many years. The initial result was other divers hiding or discarding arlifacts in tips and elsewhere. One can understand their reasoning "why get mixed up in all that s--t." The end result in court was farcical to those who followed the case through to the end with all bar one or two charges dropped and the Government lucky to achicve that result. Then again they can utilise the public's legal and financial resources without accountabilily. The Admella cannon is a similar sorry tale. Thc Victorian diver concerned, after much discussion and corespondence, initiated by a South Australian museum, loaned the cannon after all parties had agreed to conditions. Needless to say the cannon was confiscated under the legislation when it was due to be returned. It's these and other similar incidents that have successfully alienated the wreck diving community throughout Australia.

Not all state departments should be tarred with the same brush. The N.S.W. Planning department since 1988 has worked hard to liaise with divers within the legislation's limitations and no doubt there are others who realise that unless they can get wreck divers on side then they are fighting an uphill battle. After all who generally supplies the information on where the wreck sites are? The N.S.W. planning department have implemented 2 highly successful initiatives being N.S.W. wreck site atlas, and N.S.W. community wreck survey project. The latter project being one where local dive groups adopt a wreck and undertake to complete a history and site survey with assistance from the department. Not only that, the department takes a stand at Scuba Expo every year and is prepared to talk with divers. One has to give them full marks for their community liason efforts but one feels uneasy in dealing with this department given the financial and custodial penalties available under the legislation. After all the diver is the one acting on trust and relying on an individual's word.

It is interesting to note controversial comments made by Una Reilly of the Ulster Titanic Society in relation to an 1994 exhibition of recovered relics from the Titanic who said there was "nothing unique" on the Titanic to justify the wholesale removal of artifacts and accused those concerned on seeking sensation and profit. This was commented on by the authors Gardiner and Van Der Vat in the book The Riddle of the Titanic who go on to say

"what is to be learned from the harvest of artifacts so far garnered? One part of the answer is the less than startling revelations that passengers of the Titanic carried dollar bills and pound notes in leather wallets; that some passengers smoked cigarettes; that they were served from silver salvers and ate off white crockery, drank alcoholic liquers from glasses and were supplied with white chamber pots in which to dispose of the resulting waste. They also rested on wooden deck benches with wrought iron supports as commonly seen in British parks; they read newspapers wrote letters and and took the occasional crafty nip of spirits from a hip flask... And what of the ship itself? The Titanic turns out, unsuprisingly to have been equipped with fittings remarkably similar to those of her contemporaries whether portholes, engine-room telegraphs, the famous bell in the crows nest (unmarked), internals, telephones or fuse-boards, or even such a fascinating object as a helm indicator to tell those on the stem (docking) bridge which way the rudder was pointing. Ms Reilly is absolutely right; nothing unique there; nothing we did not already know about the western way of life at sea or ashore before the First World War."
Twenty years on I still believe that the 1976 Historic Shipwreck Legislation was compiled by bureaucrats more interested in securing bullion from wrecks and egged on by academics intent on feathering their own nests from the public purse rather than any other motive. The end result is illogical unworkable and unenforcable. For legislation of this type to be successful it must be of benefit to all parties however the current legislation only benefits the statutory authority. Twenly years on a confrontationalist attitude still exists between the legislation and what the individual wreck diver regards as his basic feedom which is in accordance with accepted laws of salvage and enjoyed since the invention of the Aqualung. I don't believe that attitude will go away while the legislation remains as is. It's time for a review.

Photos:Mark Spenser

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