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magazine / ma07

March/April 2007 issue


FEATURE

Finders keepers
Nova Scotia's shipwreck-filled waters and its laws that allow treasure hunters to keep 90 percent of the valuables they find have triggered a rush for sunken riches which has archaeologists and historians fuming
Excerpt of story by Heather Pringle

In the late afternoon of Nov. 15, 1761, Luc de la Corne watched a battered British merchant ship, the Auguste, break into pieces in a gale off the coast of Cape Breton Island. La Corne was a decorated captain in the French colonial army who was being deported following the French defeat two years earlier by British forces at Québec. To escape from certain death aboard the Auguste, he had thrown himself into the last lifeboat and made it to shore. But as he huddled with six fellow survivors around a blazing fire, he couldn't have felt much relief. One hundred and sixteen others — prominent French-Canadian army officers, merchants and their families — remained aboard or in the water with no hope of rescue. La Corne's own losses were particularly heavy: he could not account for his two young sons, two nephews or brother.


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"It would be difficult to do justice to the horror of the situation," he later wrote, "the cries of those who remained on the vessel; the futile efforts of those who, hoping to save their lives, threw themselves into the sea; the cold and drenching rain; the certainty I had lost my children."

The splintered ship that delivered so many to their ruin vanished beneath the waves, settling on the floor of the cold Atlantic. And there it lay, untouched by human hands, for more than two centuries. Then, in 1977, commercial divers found a cannon and several other artifacts from the Auguste in Aspy Bay near Dingwall, N.S. Lured by talk of a lost fortune aboard the doomed ship, treasure hunters have since scoured sections of the sea floor in search of silver écus and pieces of eight.

The latest assault on the bay began in 2005. With a licence from the Nova Scotia government, the Canadian salvage firm Deep Star Exploration launched a well-funded, multiyear search. If successful, it will keep nearly all the valuables it recovers, from silver cutlery and sword hilts to passengers' gold rings. These the company may sell to the highest bidder or dispose of as it chooses — a deal that has aroused the fury of many Canadian archaeologists.

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