HMS Fowey case still sends ripples through courts today.
Russell Skowronek recalls the day in the early 1980s when his Florida State University team was unloading a cannon recovered from the shipwrecked HMS Fowey in Biscayne Bay, just south of Miami. As they hoisted the 2,000-pound cannon onto the dock, a local man sidled up to him and growled, “By all rights, that belongs to us.”
The next day, when Skowronek’s team returned to the shipwreck, they found that someone had dragged an anchor across their archaeological site, ripping apart the rope grid they had set up, and wrenching from the seabed parts of the ship that had been preserved for almost 240 years.
Such confrontations have not been unusual for Skowronek, a 1979 LAS alumnus in anthropology who has even been shot at over disputes with treasure hunters. Skowronek was one of the leaders of the Florida State team that explored the Fowey and defended the government’s claim to the vessel, which sunk in 1748. He says this landmark case continues to influence underwater jurisdiction cases today, including the recent battle over the shipwrecked HMS Victory, which is believed to hold up to 500,000 gold and silver coins.
The Fowey was a British man-of-war captained by 24-year-old Francis William Drake, a descendant of the more famous British captain, Francis Drake. During his court martial, the young Drake claimed that poor maps were the reason they blundered onto the reef where the ship sunk. Skowronek believes Drake’s famous name probably kept the captain from being court-martialed, although he was relegated to a much smaller ship.
Skowronek and George Fischer explain the dramatic history of the ship in their just-published book, HMS Fowey: Lost and Found.
Prior to the discovery of the Fowey in the 1980s, Skowronek says abandoned wrecks were claimed on an informal finders-keepers basis. But that all changed with the Fowey, which was originally claimed by a Florida man who stumbled upon the ship in 30 feet of water in Biscayne National Park.
“Even though there were laws going back to Teddy Roosevelt about historic things found on government property, underwater jurisdiction was always cloudy,” says Skowronek, who was a graduate student at Florida State at the time of the ship’s discovery. Because he had studied the laws of the sea during his undergraduate years at the University of Illinois, he was brought onto the project and eventually led the recovery of artifacts on the Fowey. Today, he is with Santa Clara University in California, specializing in the Spanish colonial world.
The Fowey case concluded that the ship belonged to the government; and this decision set the precedent for the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which stipulated that if an abandoned shipwreck found in U.S. waters is not claimed by a sovereign nation, the ship’s title goes to the individual state—Florida, for example.
As Skowronek sees it, pilfering artifacts from a wreck is like “taking things from the Parthenon.”
The Florida man who discovered the Fowey never lived to hear the results of the court case, for he was murdered during a hold-up at his wife’s restaurant. But Skowronek says the man’s friends were upset by the court’s decision in favor of the government, setting the stage for the confrontation over the cannon.
In another case, Skowronek was part of a team exploring a wreck at the end of the Florida Keys when bullets started whizzing overhead, and they threw themselves flat on the deck. A treasure hunter on a nearby boat claimed it was an accident and that he was shooting at sharks. But Skowronek recalls that officials told the treasure hunter, “It’s interesting that you were shooting at sharks, but the bullets are going over the government boat out there.”
Skirmishes with treasure hunters are only part of the occupational hazards for researchers such as Skowronek. He has spotted hammerhead sharks, an aggressive species, and in one case he was on the bottom, exploring the Fowey wreck, when a huge shadow passed overhead. Thinking it was a boat, Skowronek glanced up to see a giant manta ray, with a span of 20 feet, passing over him.
In another case, he was descending down a water column, trying to fix his air regulator, when he finally glanced down and saw that he was about to land right on top of a stingray.
“It’s amazing how you can kick your legs hard enough to overcome gravity when you see an angry animal,” he says.
Skowronek and his team often found themselves on their hands and knees on the ocean bottom, looking for artifacts in the sand, so they always had to be careful—especially since, as he puts it, “It seemed that every stingray came to mate in the sand” near the wreck.
Skowronek’s team uncovered cannons, cutlasses, guns, and more from the Fowey, but his most memorable discovery came when he spotted something small, about two inches long and coated in coralline growth, sticking out of the sandy bottom.
“As I began to fan away the sand, the thing kept getting longer and longer, and I’m sucking air down, trying not to hyperventilate,” he recalls. Before long, he had uncovered an 18-inch-long bayonet still encased in a remarkably well-preserved leather scabbard.
“I’ve gone to London to the National Archives a couple of times, and I know the names of the marines who served on this ship,” he says. “So when I look at an artifact, I know this was personally used by one of those men. It feels as if I’m reaching into the past and bringing out the personality of the people through these objects.
“It allows me to better understand that an archaeological site is more than a pile of bones,” he adds. “It puts a face on these people. It allows me to understand the real story.”
By Doug Peterson