Work underway to protect 200-year-old Antiguan shipwreck

front 4 shipwreck 1 dr christopher waters (left) and jean sebastian guibert
Dr Christopher Waters (left) and Jean-Sebastian Guibert, an associate professor at the University of the Antilles, say the well preserved wreck is a rare find (File photo by Gemma Handy)
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By Gemma Handy

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The thrilling discovery of an 18th century shipwreck in the Antigua Naval Dockyard last year captured the hearts and minds of history enthusiasts across the world.

Experts believe it’s the remains of the 1762 Beaumont, a French merchant ship later bought by a private individual, renamed the Lyon and used in the American Revolutionary War.

But while the presence of the iconic vessel has been hailed as a major coup for Antigua and Barbuda, what to do with the behemoth boat now is the subject of extensive discussions and meticulous planning.

A team of visiting archaeologists have spent the last two weeks carrying out further investigations to help formally confirm the identity of the 130ft wooden ship, which lay hidden in mud just eight feet below the water’s surface for more than 200 years.

Their subaquatic work helped uncover more of the wreck that lies barely visible amid the silt in Tank Bay.

A number of diagnostic artefacts were found and the team – comprising students and professors from East Carolina University, experts from the University of the Antilles and National Parks Authority (NPA) staff – were also able to pinpoint the stern area and rudder.

Jean-Sebastian Guibert, an associate professor at the University of the Antilles in Martinique, said wood samples had been taken from the boat to help date it.

Previous excavations revealed the vessel’s measurements to match the dimensions of the 900-ton Beaumont.

But Jeremy Borrelli, Staff Archaeologist with East Carolina University’s maritime studies programme, said officially confirming its identity is “incredibly hard”.

“We are hoping that with any material culture we find, and mainly the construction of the ship itself, because that’s what remains – the floor timbers, the keelson, the keel, the planking – that we can match it with the French East India Company which built the Beaumont,” he told Observer.

The French East India Company was an imperial commercial enterprise founded in 1664 to compete with English and Dutch trading firms in what is today east Asia.

Dr Christopher Waters, Manager of the NPA’s Heritage Department, said experts are “95 percent confident” the ship is the Beaumont.

“Unfortunately with shipwrecks you never find the nameplate or the bell with the name on it, except on really rare occasions,” he explained.

In the meantime, work remains underway to ensure its preservation.

“Right now our goal is for passive protection – making sure no one drops anchors on it as it’s an active anchorage, and making sure no one swims out there,” he said.

One fascinating part of the team’s efforts involves photogrammetry – the process of taking photographs of an object from a variety of angels and stitching them together to create a 3D model. 

This will enable digital exhibits of the boat to be placed in the dockyard museum and online.

But anyone hoping the vessel will eventually be raised from its underwater resting site will likely be disappointed.

“Once you take a wreck out of the water, out of its anaerobic, zero oxygen environment and you don’t treat it, you don’t conserve it, it will fall apart in a matter of months if not days,” Dr Waters said.

“The reality is, especially on a shipwreck this size, it would take hundreds of millions of dollars and 15, 20 years of conservation work to conserve it thoroughly.

“We don’t have those resources; almost no country in the world has those kinds of resources.”

The medium-term plan is to develop a strategy to ensure anything spent on the site is recouped in tourism revenue.

That could involve placing a platform around it so visitors have safe spaces to swim, and reducing the silt to improve the wreck’s visibility.

The team’s efforts form part of a larger project to carry out a heritage study of the marine environment inside English Harbour, Dr Waters said.

That ranges from using sonar surveys to see if there are any more significant shipwrecks, to preserving the 200-year-old stone quay that encircles the dockyard.

The quay was built by enslaved Africans around 1819 to 1822 and its wall stretches 15ft underwater.

“Today, the quay is a key part of the economy. As a modern yachting marina it brings in a lot of revenue so maintaining its historic nature while also being able to use it for yachting is really important,” Dr Waters continued.

Local divers have been involved in the project too, helping the team identify new sites of potential interest, while NPA staff have received training in 3D modelling.

Archaeologist and East Carolina University professor Dr Lynn Harris said evening workshops for the local community had been geared towards divers.

“The aim is to train them in how to work on shipwrecks and how to record things, so they can become part of the story too,” she told Observer.

For Dr Harris’ students and the other visiting archaeologists, the shipwreck and dockyard offer a treasure trove of artefacts to explore.

“Shipwrecks don’t usually occur in the most ideal circumstances; they’re usually out on a reef so this is a very unique site,” Borrelli said.

“The shipwreck is not in a vacuum; it’s part of this cultural landscape that we have all around us.”

The team’s land-based work includes documenting other historical sites within the national park, such as the dockyard’s Capstan House and its heave-down blocks.

The pivotal role enslaved Africans played in the dockyard’s construction is central to the work, Borrelli added, with the aim of “telling that broader story”.

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