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Polluce wreck

Like every grand tale of shipwreck and lost treasure, the story about the Polluce has it all. A paddlewheel steamboat shipwrecked in 1841, it is the centrepiece of a drama spanning more than one and a half centuries and has all the necessary ingredients: drama and tragedy, greed and crime, passion and politics. And it is still ongoing. Polluce is about to be excavated once more as this story goes to press.
Polluce wreck
Published in X-Ray Issue: 07 - Oct 2005
Authored by: Peter Symes | Photography: Peter Symes | Translation:
Download pdf ► Polluce wreck
This incredible tale is not just about a dramatic shipwreck in which one of the two colliding steamboats sinks in the matter of minutes off the island of Elba in the Mediterranean taking along with it tothe bottom of the sea a huge treasure—although this aspect of the wreck alone would be dramatic story in its own right.
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The story isn’t complete either by including the following inquiries and legal proceedings, which took place in Livorno (Leghorn) in the years 1842 to 1846, right in the middle of a turbulent period of history when European nationalism flaired up and new states were born or unified including modern Italy. We have spanned one and a half centuries to include a clandestine excavation of the wreck and illegal removal of the treasure in the 21st century as well as an international scandal and a police matter which reached into several European countries.

Rise of nationalism.
In 1841, every little kingdom, duchy or territory in the politically fragmented area around the Tyrrhenian Sea seemed to, maybe not surprisingly, have some stake or claim on this wreck and it’s precious cargo. In that day and age, there were no such notions as territorial waters or international treaties governing legal matters pertaining to the seas. A ship’s owner had little or no protection nor was there a supporting legal framework in regards to salvaging a lost ship or its cargo. Indeed, this was also the case of the Polluce and it’s owner, one de Luchi Rubattino from Genoa.

First attempts
Following the loss of his vessel, de Luchi Rubattino desperately staged several salvage attempts. However, the wreck was lying far deeper than any previous salvage work. Attempting to salvage the wreck of the Polluce was an unbelievable enterprise at the time—it was the first time anyone had tried to go so deep. After two failed attempts, de Luchi Rubattino predictably ran out of money a gave up. He spent 500,000 lire to buy a brand new boat and salvaging attempts cost up to 470,000 lire.

Also as an interested parties we have the king of Sardinia for whom it was its most important trading vessel and the king of France who supplied some of the equipment for the salvage attempts including some heavy lifting chains which can now be found at the naval base of Toulon in southern France. A report of these recovery attempts, in the form of a 48-page booklet dated 1841, is then passed down history from a colonel serving the archduke of Tuscany.

21st century visitors
It is armed with these historical records, obtained from a Parisian investigator of historical documents named Pascal Kainic, a group of eight English divers from East Anglia (a county in eastern England also known as Norfolk) arrive in Genoa in the spring of 2000 - David Dixon, Jerry Sullivan, Kerr Sinclair and Nicholas Pearson and some others. None of them had any previous experience with salvage work and only two had previously worked at sea at all. They did, however, seem to know exactly where the wreck of Polluce is located and how to get there. One of them also seemed to be the manager of a salvage company, curiously enough.

In Genoa the group charters a supply vessel with a crane and an excavator bucket from the Genoese company Technospamec and hire in an Italian crew. The charter is for three weeks against a fee of €190,000. They set sail and head right for the designated area where they set out their marker buoys. Using a ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) with a videolink they search the bottom and try to steer the excavating bucket onto the wreck. With this crude tool they break up the wreck to get to the cargo and the treasure. During their 21 days at sea they manage to bring up and onto the deck of their vessel 1400 tons of mud and scrap iron.

Meanwhile the Italian crew were kept completely in the dark. Their access were restricted to the foredeck and they were forbidden to see or interfere with what was going on with the excavation and what was loaded onto the aft deck.

40 tons of Lead
On March 1. they returned to Genoa. Here they unloaded 40 tons of recovered lead, gave the crew some silver coins and disembarked to return to England without a hint about any treasure to anybody. Nobody knew what really happened.

Back in England, however, the English divers celebrated their amazing adventure and gave interviews to the local daily paper of Great Yarmouth. Once in the headlines of the newspaper the cat was out of the sack as it would soon enough come back to haunt them. Another interesting chapter in the Polluce story was about to begin.

Who and when?
But how did they know about the content of the Polluce in the first place? And who supplied the position coordinates?

Who made the necessary investigations in order to locate the wreck again after so long time – and when? Polluce was just a single wooden hull 50 meters long lying at a depth of 103 meters and there was no mention of this ship in the national and international nautical books or databases.

The auction
The treasure was put up for sale at an auction held on June 21 2001. at the auction house of Noonan Webb in London. It was a precious collection of 2000 silver coins, 311 gold coins, diamonds and jewels and silverware as well as a cup from a cabinet were meant to be put up for sale . If they had sold all they would have realised more than €400,000.
However, it did never come to anything of the sort. On the day before, on June 20, the Metropolitan Police’s department of antiquities arrived on the premises and put a halt the auction after being informed by the Italian police. In the following statement to the press the police said they have received information that the artefacts has been illegally recovered from Italian waters and taken to England. The police seized the collection while the astounded producers insisted that their permission certificates from the Italian authorities were in order. In a sense they were.

The permissions were indeed issued to their company but as the policemen soon enough pointed out the permission referred to another wreck, the Glen Logan, and to the recovery of aluminium ingots. Furthermore as the Glen Logan was sunk in 1916 by a German u-boat off the island of Stromboli near Sicily no less than some 460 miles away this was certainly no small error. Everything was subsequently taken into custody and the four adventurers were first charged and then released. According to Scotland Yard they have not paid a single fine at this point in time.

Returning the treasure
On 10th October 2002, Vernon Rapley, the Scotland Yard detective who seized the treasure handed it over to police officers from the Protection Patrimony of Florence. But was it all of the treasure or was it only a small part of it? Subsequent attempts to locate the four for further questioning has been unsuccessful, their telephones were not answered and they no longer lived at their known addresses. The local press were convinced that the group had a financier as the divers were unskilled. One of them, David Dixon, has previously been associated with offshore jobs but the others, from what is known, have never carried out work with wrecks.

Comex
May 8. 2003. The world renowned French salvage company Comex’ vessel Janus arrives at Porto Azzurro on Elba to search for Polluce. The owner legendary Henri Delauze is aboard. During searches in a darkened room behind the shoulders of the helmsman four men are seated along a wall of blue screens. Sophisticated equipment control the ship with millimetres’ precision and enabe the men to home in on the exact location where the Polluce is found. It is on the opaque sonar screen the site is first visible. First small, then the location spreads across the monitor.

On edge
Delauze stands up nervously. Takes a close look at the screen. Walks around agitated. Then sits down. The previous visitors have disintegrated and destroyed the wreck and left nothing it seems. The question springs mind: How could the English possibly know about the wreck? Backtracing events the first scan of the wreck was dated June 1995, when Delauze identified it for the first time. On this scan the classic silhouette emerges clearly. The ....

( Story continues in the next part of the story "Polluce Wreck - the Recovery" )

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Polluce wreck
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