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HMS Lutine Treasure and Salvage

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Tue 16 Oct 2012 – For over two hundred years, treasure seekers and salvage crews have been galvanised by stories of gold bars lying in shallow shores off the North Sea.

Part I of this series looked at how HMS Lutine, on route from the UK to Hamburg, with a cargo of gold bars, sank off the coast of a Dutch island in October 1799. The Lloyd‘s underwriters, who covered the loss, moved quickly, and their agents even beat the Admiralty to the site of the wreck.   Initial salvage efforts were frustrated because Britain was at war with the Netherlands, whose government promptly claimed ownership of the wreck.  This prevented Lloyd‘s from fishing the gold out of a wreck which was still partially exposed at low tide. This was a critical period, Lloyd’s weekly newspaper, writing over a hundred years later, summed up the situation: “never was there such easy wealth for honest Dutchmen”.

After a few years, the Dutch fisherman stopped hunting, convinced that they had found all the treasure. A few items came to light, notably a set of spoons marked “WS” and identified as the property of Captain Skynner, and a sword, marked as being made in Charing Cross and identified as belonging to a first lieutenant. The fishermen returned these to the family of the drowned men.

All that glitters  Then, a few years after the Napoleonic Wars, Pierre Eschauzier remembered HMS Lutine. He began to investigate the old stories, reaching the conclusion that a great deal of treasure was still in the wreck. Eschauzier‘s premise (which was revived by later salvors) is that the serial numbers of the gold bars were part of a sequence. Examining the numbers and letters on the bars, he concluded that the cargo had contained 600 bars of gold, well above the 58 which the Dutch fishermen reported finding after the wreck . The Dutch Government agreed, granting Mr Eschauzier half of any treasure found.   For seven years, Mr Eschauzier searched in vain. The major effect of his efforts was to alert indignant underwriters back in London, who protested that the Dutch Government had no right to grant salvage terms to a cargo which belonged to them. They called in the British Government and in 1823, Mr Conyngham, Secretary of Lloyd’s wrote to Mr William Bell, the Lloyd’s chairman, that “after much negotiation, His Netherlands‘ Majesty has expressed his willingness to cede to British claimants the whole of that moiety of the said property”. The other moiety, or half, remained with Mr Eschauzier.

The Committee of Lloyd‘s adopted a pragmatic approach to the issue – that half of something might be better than the whole of nothing. But both sides remained on terms of mutual distrust.

Eschauzier’s heirs spent nine years negotiating with Lloyd’s. Consequently, the next serious salvage attempt was delayed until 1857 when Lloyd’s Dutch Agent reported that some coins and cannon shot had been found. He acknowledged that the value was “not of much signification” but concluded that the salvage was “of great importance” as it proved that the wreck had been found and, more pertinently, that specie was still in the wreck.

The Lutine Bell  In 1858, HMS Lutine yielded her most famous find – the Lutine Bell. The bell was found entangled in the chains originally running from the ship’s wheel to the rudder, and was originally left in this state before being separated and re-hung from the rostrum of the Lloyd’s Underwriting Room where it still hangs today.   The bell was traditionally struck when news of an overdue ship arrived – once for the loss of a ship (i.e. bad news), and twice for her return (i.e. good news). The bell was sounded to ensure that all brokers and underwriters were made aware of the news simultaneously.

Another salvage attempt was made in 1859, when enough of the rudder was recovered to make a table and a chair which can now be found in the Old Library, where meetings are regularly held.

Eventually a gale covered her over again.  But this was enough to ensure that when Lloyd’s was incorporated in an act of Parliament in 1871, that the Lutine was included: “the Society may, from time to time do, or join in doing…with a view to further salving the wreck of the Lutine”.

At this stage, Lloyd‘s Dutch Agent appears to have accepted Eschauzier’s theory that more gold existed, by virtue of the serial numbers on the bars. Using the serial numbers of the gold bars found in more recent salvage, he calculated that the original cargo was a thousand bars of gold, of a value of £1, 175, 000 and critically, that just one tenth of the treasure had been found.

In 1886, salvors could use steam suction dredgers, and with this technology, the crew managed to recover two guns. One was given to Queen Victoria, and was put on display in Windsor Castle; the other was sent to the Corporation of London for the Guildhall Museum. Between 1859 and 1910, Liverpool Underwriters were given a chair from Lutine wood. Another cannon, recovered in 1896, was presented to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands”.

Edwardian salvage attempts principally recovered three anchors. Further efforts in the 1930s were also frustrated, when a WWI mine damaged the diving bell . Popular Mechanics magazine confidently predicted that “only a terrible storm can frustrate this attempt to salvage the Lutine‘s gold but by 1938, only one gold bar had been recovered by the Karimata.  Despite more modern attempts, this is the only gold bar to be recovered from the wreck since the 1860s.

Buried treasure  After 200 years of searching, is the gold still there?  And why, when the wreck lies at 6-7 metres depth, has nobody found it? Perhaps the best reason is found in an account by New Zealand diver Steve McIntyre who was on the 1980 attempt: “It was the only diving job I remember when your fellow divers would not take your turn for you. When we left, none of us was ever going to go back there again”.

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