Patrick James Cole
GOD'S GRACE: ENGLISH MARITIME SALVAGE, 1600-1800.
(Under the direction of Professor Carl Swanson) Department of History, March 1994.
The purpose of this thesis is to investigate a little understood and largely ignored area of maritime history. Because of the vulnerability of wooden ships and increases in shipping in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, shipwrecks were common. The salvage of these shipwrecks was an activity which took many forms, and involved people from every socio-economic group.
In order to understand salvage activities and their consequences, the legal history of shipwrecks in England is investigated beginning in the medieval period. This is followed by a survey of the types of salvage activities which occurred throughout the country. A case study of Devon County is then presented.
A survey of laws reveals that the ancient belief that shipwrecked property belonged to its finder was maintained for centuries. This reasoning was reinforced not only by poor plunderers but also by the actions of state officials, entrepreneurs, inventors, and wealthy landowners who had legal means of profiting from shipwrecks.
The example of Devonshire shows what plunderers and the landed gentry gained from shipwrecks usually consisted of ship pieces such as rope and timber. These items were heartily welcomed by the poor and their ownership was fiercely guarded as an aspect of property by the rich. A class of professional, full-time salvors also evolved to represent the claims of merchants and shipowners , and to oversee the salvage of ships and goods which were to be returned to their rightful owners.
In conclusion, this study reveals that all social orders had a means of taking advantage of the inevitability of shipwreck. The various regimes in place between 1600 and 1800 failed to formulate a comprehensive policy condemning plunder and the abuse of wrecks. Through plunder, the poor also had a relatively safe means of demonstrating against a system which increasingly constrained their social and economic mobility. These themes are relevant today, as historic shipwrecks are plundered by treasure hunters. The durable, centuries old "finders keepers" attitudes persists, as does the notion that stealing from historic wrecks is a safe means of protesting against a legal system which attempts to limit the activities of treasure hunters.