The fury with which primitive communities descended upon a stricken vessel can only be regarded with a sense of awe. Tales abound of the ferocity of wreckers and their cruel deeds. Many tales are related which must be apocryphal. Foremost among these is the story of the light tied to a cow’s horns, a horse’s tail or even carried by men to give the impression of the lantern of a ship rising and falling at anchor. Another story is of a raft or shallow draught vessel with a lantern luring a ship over a reef in darkness. False beacons on shore could be used to lure a ship into a landlocked bay if the keepers of the true light were intoxicated and their beacon extinguished. The most horrific tales involve the slaughter of survivors and the pillage of their jewellery. There is some explanation for these tales and traditions in the bizarre regulations which applied in less civilized ages.
In the third century BC the peoples of the Mediterranean had the Rhodian code which survived a 1000 years until the Crusades. Then the assizes of Jerusalem took over. The Tabula Amalfitana was established in the 10th century on the island of Amalfi and covered wreckage among other maritime matters. On the eastern Mediterranean the Bzantine authorities had the code of maritime law known as Basilika. Under Brehon law in Ireland when a ship was wrecked its cargo belonged to the people of the locality of the wreck. It is not surprising that this convenient state of affairs was little more than laissez faire. The law is not sophisticated by any qualification regarding survivors or owners of goods.
Ancient common law directed that the cargo of a wrecked ship belonged to the king who might assign his rights to a favoured noble or landowner. For instance in 1174 the abbot of Buildwas in Shropshire was granted the rights of St Mary’s abbey in Dublin by Henry II “to include all the shipwrecks that might happen on their land” In 1684 the rich rights to wreck on the South Bull were disputed between Dublin Corporation and the Admiralty.[ref]John W. De Courcy The Liffey in Dublin, Gill & Macmillan Dublin, 1996, ISBN 0717124231[/ref] Later in 1728 the City of Dublin observed that Captain Vernon assumes the right of the City by taking upon him the right to seize such things that are cast on the shore at Clontarf by shipwreck which is the undoubted right of the city of Dublin .
Prior to Henry I the King had complete possession of wrecked property. It is unclear whether this was to lessen the temptation to cause vessels to be wrecked and their crews murdered for the sake of pillage. Merchants survived shipwreck only to see their goods seized on the shore by the crown authorities. Towards the end of his reign Henry I decreed that wrecked goods should not be considered lost to the owner or become the crown property if there were survivors.
Henry II expanded this situation in 1120 decreeing that if any man or beast survived a shipwreck, the cargo would not be deemed wreck, and the goods would remain the property of the owner. This explains the strange observation in reports that mention some animal surviving the wreck and omit other significant details. A cat with its reputation for nine lives was therefore a useful piece of insurance aboard ship. This lead to the allegation that sailors washed ashore were murdered so that the goods would be considered wreck. This state of affairs was further modified in 1236.
Richard I changed the situation somewhat by stating that all persons escaping alive from a shipwreck should retain their goods. A wreck or wreckage should only be considered the property of the crown when neither an owner, nor heirs of a late owner could be found. Richard I is believed to have developed the Rolls of Oleron at a maritime court at the island of the same name near Bordeaux. He embarked to the Holy Land from Oleron for a Crusade.[ref] Rev John Gilmore, Storm Warriors, Lifeboat work on the Goodwin Sands, Macmillan London 1874[/ref] Medieval Europe’s Atlantic coastline was regulated by this code. There were 37 articles, which, promulgated by Richard, they formed a basis of maritime law for several centuries in European countries. The code provided that treacherous pilots who deliberately drove ships ashore should be hanged on gibbets. If a pilot colluded with lords of the manor who profited from their actions by having ships beached where they had right of salvage the punishment was severe indeed. The lord was to be tied to a post in the middle of his own house and the house set on fire at the four corners. Previous to this dreadful fate his goods were to be forfeited and given to those injured. If this were not sufficient the ruins of the house was to be converted into a place for the sale of hogs and swine.
The penalty for murder of shipwrecked folk was to be plunged into the sea until half dead and then stoned to death. A milder sentence was provided for negligent pilots who were to have their goods seized to repair the loss. However if their goods were insufficient they were to be beheaded. Captains were advised that they should be persuaded that the man had not the means to make good the loss, before they cut off his head. The Rolls of Oleron were incorporated into The Laws of Wisbeg, The Judgements of Damme in Flanders and the Purple book of Bruges.[ref]Alexander Pearce Higgins, Constantine John Colombos, The international law of the sea, Longmans, Green, 1943[/ref]
The wrecking situation was so serious that in 1169 the Church found it necessary to take a stance. The Lateran council held at Rome condemned wrecking and exhibiting false signals.
Edward III in 1353 ordained that four men would be appointed receivers and would try to find the rightful owner of wreckage. This is the first mention of receivers and the title applies to this day to the officers of customs warranted to administer wreck. In 1375 he gathered a solemn inquisition at Queensborough consisting of 18 of the most famous seafarers of the time. The Black Book of the Admiralty was commenced to record decisions on maritime law. The work was continued by Richard II and Henry IV. The original of the Black Book disappeared in the late 18th century but the Admiralty Library reassembled sections from manuscripts in the British Museum in 1871.
George II produced a new act which set out its intentions. Despite the existing laws there had been many wicked deeds relating to shipwrecks. Thus he provided for penalties. Death was prescribed for hanging out misleading lights to bring vessels into distress. Death was prescribed for the murder or prevention of the escape of shipwrecked persons and for stealing the goods whether there were survivors or not. Later laws reduced the penalties to imprisonment but penal servitude for life was the penalty for scuttling or burning a ship to defraud the insurance.
In the 17th century Hugo Grotius a Dutch Lawyer invented the concept of Mare Liberum which as the name in Latin suggests described the high seas as free. The concept was that outside of territorial waters there was no territorial claim. Originally the limit of a country’s jurisdiction was three miles then reckoned to be the range of a cannon shot.
Research by Alan Roddie revealed the grant of salvage rights on the Irish Coast to several individuals but particular wrecks are not specified. On 5-12-1694 The Kings Warrant Book records that Lieut Col Edward Pierce was granted rights to all salvage within 50 Leagues of the Staggs of Broadhaven until 1702 provided he keep a faithful account and bring any recovered goods to London.[ref]William Arthur Shaw, Calendar of Treasury Books: (4 pts) 1693-1696,H.M. Stationery Office[/ref] Similarly on 21-5-1705 John Knap, Samuel Cope and William Rayner petitioned to be granted wrecks on the West coast of Ireland for 14 years.[ref]William Arthur Shaw Calendar of treasury books, 1660/67-: preserved in the Public Record Office, Volume 28, Part 2 page 843 H.M. Stationery Office, 1969 ; vol XX Part 2 page 262-263[/ref] An Andrew Becker was given a warrant on 22-12-1715 to fish for wrecks in America and Ireland.[ref]William Arthur Shaw, Calendar of Treasury Books: (2 pts) 1714 vol XXIX Part 2 page 859[/ref]
Salvage disputes and awards were not uncommon. The case of the Danish East Indiaman Golden Lion wrecked at Ballyheigue lead to protracted battle between the Danish and British authorities. The Danes claimed that she was beached not wrecked. The Crosbie family and other locals felt that they were deprived of their salvage due and robbed the entire load of silver. Arthur Crosbie was tried in Dublin and acquitted. A proclamation was issued by the Lord Lieutenant on 13 March 1731 looking for the twelve chests of silver and the robbers. Two cases are mentioned in official papers. They were Rosina in 1825[ref] Salvage of ship Rossina, Privy Council Papers National Archives 1825-31 II 601 OP904[/ref] and the Thomas & Jane at Liscannor in 1822[ref]Salvage of Thomas & Jane off Liscannor Privy Council Papers Dublin 1822 II 516 OP537[/ref]. The number of shipwrecks in the early part of the nineteenth century led to the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 and the modern principles of salvage. The Act described categories of wreck as jetsam, flotsam and lagan (material buoyed to be recovered later). It provided that the receiver could summon men and sailors to assist and also impress carts or equipment to save goods. It provided that anyone who provided a service to save life or goods was entitled to reward by the ship owners. Penalties were clearly laid out for plundering wreck and failing to report salvaged goods to the receiver. It is interesting that a clause in the act forbids the exhibiting of false signals and interfering with navigation marks and lights. However locals in coastal areas still regarded wreckage as their own. Even as late as the end of the last century there were pitched battles between coast guards and wreckers where militia had to be called in to fight mobs on the seashore. Such an incident occurred at the wreck of the Chicago in Cork in 1868. An enquiry was held into the wreck of the San Francisco at Clonakilty on 7-1-1867. The local landlord was Mr Beamish and his role in the matter was complicated to say the least. Coastguards fired at the mob which assembled. There was also a doubt about the circumstances of the loss of the ship which had been at sea for nearly two months due to contrary winds.
One of the last claims of rights of Lord of the Manor occurred in Ireland in 1928. The SS Garthloch of Stockton foundered off Cahore, Co Wexford in March 1928 and flour was washed ashore. The insurers, Lloyds, abandoned their interest and the owners of the land at the George estate claimed salvage rights. The claim was made but as the value was not considerable it was not pursued. The basis was that a patent had been awarded on 26 February in the tenth year of the reign of William III to Joost Earl of Albermarle which had been conveyed on 19-3-1703. This allowed all rights and easements including wreck and over all rights of the sea. The stretch of coast covered was between Ballymonisbeg and Ballinoulart.
A group of English divers claimed to be salvors in possession of the three 1588 Armada wrecks at Streedagh in the early 1990s. Their claim was disputed by the Irish State in a protracted series of cases and appeals. They were awarded a “generous reward” for their interest but not before they had taken court action against the Government.
The UN Law of the Sea convention, not ratified by the USA, but intended for ratification by Britain in 1997, lead to the Merchant Shipping Salvage and Wreck Act of 1994 and radically changed the situation in Ireland. It forbids the boarding of any wreck without the permission of the master or owner. The status of salvor in possession is therefore altered. Especially in the case of pollution the State is given extensive powers.[ref]Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society, vol xxvii, 1984 Lyons by June Eiffe[/ref]
The National Monuments Amendment Act (no 17 of 1987) vests control of any wreck over 100 years old in the Irish State and also allows for the application of a Heritage Order to any more modern wreck of historical importance. Such an order has been applied to the Lusitania and its effect is to create an exclusion zone for diving in a wide area in the vicinity. Permits to dive need to be obtained even by the owner of the wreck who had to challenge the authorities to access his wreck.
Admiralty law took a new twist in 1989 when the Central America case was judged in Norfolk Virginia. The Columbus America group was granted possession of a wrecked ship 160 miles offshore.
The American court with Judge Calvitt Clarke presiding also heard a case between two Americans Beamis and Gentile where Beamis’s ownership of the wreck was disputed by a company Fifty Fathoms Ventures. The Norfolk court found that it did have jurisdiction since the admiralty jurisdiction of the US is not limited by the seas involved whether within the Irish 12 mile limit or not.
Now an International Maritime court has been established at Hamburg under auspices of the United Nations. One hundred and six states have signed the convention. The European Union has signed as an entity but has not ratified. It is expected that Britain and the USA may sign up in the future. This finalizes work commenced by the League of Nations in the 1930s.