By Gemma Handy
Resting on the seabed, just eight feet below the water’s surface – traversed by thousands of yachts visiting Antigua’s prime tourist hub – one centuries-old ship lay undiscovered for more than 200 years.
Local historians had suspected that Tank Bay at the entrance to Nelson’s Dockyard may be hiding a historic vessel.
But this week that theory was finally proven when a team of visiting archaeologists confirmed the presence of a wreck measuring more than 40 metres in length and built to 18th century navy specifications.
And – if preliminary indications hold water – the behemoth vessel could be the only remaining wreck of its kind in the world.
The team now hopes to unlock the secrets concealed within the ship’s remarkably well-preserved timber frame, and solve the mystery of its origins.
The mud which helped keep it from view may just be what preserved it, offering scientists a veritable time capsule of maritime glory to explore.
A hydrographic survey carried out some years ago was the first real sign that the vessel was there; this was backed up by the sighting of a large rib by local diver Maurice Belgrave.
Efforts to locate the vessel again in the area’s murky waters were fruitless until now. Funding from the French government paid for a crew of experts from Martinique to carry out a six-day probe which began on Sunday.
As scientists slowly piece together the puzzle of its past, there is increasing evidence to suggest the vessel could be the remains of the 1762 Beaumont, a 900-tonne French merchant ship which was later bought by a private individual, renamed the Lyon and used in the American Revolution.
If so, the team says it would be the only shipwreck with an intact hull built by the French East India Company left in the world.
The French East India Company was founded in 1664 as an imperial commercial enterprise to compete with English and Dutch trading firms in what is today east Asia.
While the evidence is currently only circumstantial, it is “compelling”, archaeologist Dr Christopher Waters, of the National Parks Authority, tells Observer.
“I have not stopped smiling since the wreck site was confirmed on Sunday; the fact that it’s massive is incredibly special and unique in itself. Most wreck sites are small merchant ships.
“This one is comparable to – if not quite – the Mary Rose, in terms of its size and the stories we may be able to tell of it,” he says.
Leading the underwater team is Jean-Sebastian Guibert, an associate professor at the University of the Antilles.
He described finding the ship – using high-tech sonar equipment and a magnetometer – as “kind of like hitting the jackpot”.
“I have been working in the French West Indies for 15 years and it’s the largest wreck I’ve ever seen,” he grins. “I did not expect it to be so big.”
Only wood and ballast have been discovered so far – and artefacts are unlikely due to the fact the ship was probably stripped down – but it could shed new light on late 18th century wooden ship construction.
“It’s a mystery why it lay there for several hundred years and no one knew about it,” Dr Waters continues.
“The British were very good at keeping records about what happened at the dockyard and we haven’t found anything relating to it, so it’s a big possibility it’s not British but something else.”
A 1780 map of the dockyard, from London’s National Archives, implies a French warship lies in the spot under investigation.
“I’ve done a lot of research on it and it’s certainly plausible,” Dr Waters says.
As a heavily armed merchant ship, the Beaumont was designed to travel from France to the Indian and Pacific oceans.
“It served for two years in the French navy. After that it was bought by a private merchant and used in the American Revolution. It was then captured off Virginia by HMS Maidstone.
“We know it was brought here; we just don’t know what happened to it. But it was very badly damaged and probably never left English Harbour again.”
The ship’s location and size are clear hints that it could indeed be the Lyon.
The team’s initial work involves mapping out the site around it, figuring out the wreck’s dimensions and seeing which measurements match the Lyon.
The next stage would be in-depth analysis of the types of timbers used and of the rings in the wood to gauge when it was cut and where. The composition of the ballast stone would also be scrutinised.
One thing they won’t be doing is raising the vessel; not only is such a process arduous, it is extremely costly and “could take decades”, Dr Waters explains.
Neither are they expecting to find a treasure trove.
“This is not a treasure hunt; it’s a scientific exploration and we won’t be selling anything that’s found,” he says. “The ship is part of the cultural patrimony of Antigua and Barbuda and it will all be staying in Antigua and Barbuda.”
Still, its discovery certainly enhances the dockyard’s profile, and is a fitting testimony to next month’s fifth anniversary of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“I’m still shocked that the ship is so large, intact and not showing any anchor damage,” Dr Waters says. “It’s amazing it could have lain there undiscovered for so long. I have snorkelled out there many times, used sonar equipment and missed it every single time.”
How long it takes to formally identify the vessel will largely depend on how much funding the team can attract.
“The easiest way to identify a ship is to find a bell with a name on it; this will not have a bell with a name on it,” Dr Waters says.
Whatever the crew discovers, the role of the predominantly nameless workers who would have helped strip it down all those years ago will never be forgotten.
“All the people doing the labour were enslaved Africans,” Dr Waters adds. “The shipwreck is very important but we are still talking about lives and their story must remain at the forefront.”