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Shipwrecked: HMS Sussex, 1694

Fiduciary Wealth Team

Mystery and intrigue surrounds the sinking of an English warship lost off the coast of Gibraltar in the 17th century. The HMS Sussex, an 80-gun warship carrying 500 crew, was the pride of the English Royal Navy when she sank during a severe storm on 1st March 1694.

The tragic event presented a fascinating scenario for historians, archaeologists and those interested in maritime history, after it was claimed she was carrying the equivalent of $500 million in gold coins and bullion.

However, after the shipwreck was discovered in 2001, salvage efforts have been continually thwarted as a result of what's described as a diplomatic wrangle between the British, American and Spanish governments. Read on to find out more about the mystery that has remained hidden at the bottom of the ocean for more than 300 years...


Maiden voyage and sinking

As the flagship of Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler and the pride of the Navy, HMS Sussex was launched on 11th April 1693 on her maiden voyage from Chatham Dockyard. She was escorting a large fleet of 166 merchant ships and 40 warships to the Mediterranean.

Initially, the voyage was uneventful and following a short stopover in Cadiz, the fleet sailed into the Mediterranean. However, on 27th February 1694, the flotilla encountered a violent storm near the Strait of Gibraltar. HMS Sussex sank early in the morning on the third day of the storm. Only two crew members survived and Admiral Wheeler's body was later found on the eastern shore of Gibraltar.

It was a disaster for the English fleet, as 12 other ships also sank and 1,200 personnel in total lost their lives in one of the biggest tragedies in Royal Navy history.


Secret mission

After the disaster, it was reported that HMS Sussex had been carrying a very special cargo - gold valued at $500 million destined as a "sweetener" to persuade the Italian Duke of Savoy to remain Britain's ally in the War of the League of Augsburg.

The coalition was known as the Grand Alliance and the combined fleets of the two sovereignties intended to do battle against Louis XIV of France, who had expansive plans for his nation. Other global powers wished to curb them and the gold coins and bullion were being transported to the Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, to this end.

Twelve months later, England attempted a second time to bribe Savoy, but to no avail. By this time, he had accepted an offer from the French and changed sides, effectively creating stalemate which brought the war to an end.

An investigation into why HMS Sussex sank proved inconclusive, although Royal Navy chiefs privately believed it confirmed suspicions that an 80-gun ship with only two decks was inherently unstable.

It was suggested water had entered the open gun ports overnight, while the captain slept, causing a swift end to the vessel. Evidence suggested that the gold sank with the ship and remained lost on the ocean bed for 307 years.


Recovery efforts

In 1998, an American company called Odyssey Marine Exploration began to search for HMS Sussex. In 2001, it claimed the vessel had been located at a depth of 800 metres. The ship's owner, the British government, negotiated a deal with Odyssey to share any potential treasure found through the recovery of the shipwreck.

The recovery operation was due to start in 2003, but various archaeologists protested that this would set a dangerous precedent in permitting shipwrecks to be "ransacked" by private companies, under the guise of carrying out archaeological expeditions.

A body called the Sussex Archaeological Executive was set up to further examine the plans. Archaeologists criticised the British government and described ministers as having a "treasure hunt" approach.

In 2005, Odyssey and the British government finalised a strategy for implementing a project plan - the first time a government had made such an agreement with a private sector firm to recover a sovereign warship. It was known as the Black Swan Project.


Diplomatic hitch

However, in August 2005, the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a diplomatic note to the US Embassy, stating that Odyssey could search for the Sussex on the condition that the company obtained a representative from the regional authorities to accompany the salvage mission.

Odyssey never had a reply from the regional government body, the Junta de Andalucía. Believing that international law was on Odyssey's side, the US government didn't have a problem with the recovery project beginning in December 2005.

Problems arose because Odyssey claimed the site was in international waters, but the Spanish Government argued it was in Spanish waters. The site is located south-east of Gibraltar, in an area marked "High Seas" on the atlas.

The location has complex territorial rights, as the UK territory of Gibraltar is on the Spanish mainland and the Spanish territory of Ceuta is on the African mainland.

The Council for British Archaeology says that because the shipwreck is in waters that are disputed as being either international, or Spanish, the lack of clarity has led to an ongoing, lengthy dispute that has held up the recovery project.

Spanish authorities, spearheaded by the government of Andalusia, have effectively stopped the recovery from continuing and to this day, diplomatic difficulties remain unresolved. The $500 million said to lie under the ocean remains there and looks set to do so for the foreseeable future.

As well as being the location of the most fascinating shipwreck mystery of all time, Gibraltar is also an established and highly regulated international finance centre, so if $500 million in gold bullion is really hidden underwater, it's in the right place!

Gibraltar is also the home of Fiduciary Wealth, an independent private wealth planning practice offering a wide variety of financial services to help you plan for your future. Our key objective is to make a positive difference by providing ethical and tax optimised wealth management solutions on a cross border basis. Please contact us for information on our range of investment and wealth management services.