History - HMS Sussex

HMS Susssex © Oydesy Marine
HMS Susssex

HMS SUSSEX -  a PRICELESS english Shipwreck FOUND off Gibraltar

HMS Sussex was an 80-gun, 500-crew, English warship lost in a severe storm off Gibraltar in 1694. The story of her mission and place in the unfolding events of the late 17th and early 18th centuries presents a fascinating scenario to (marine) archaeologists, historians, and those with a general interest in European and international affairs.


Built in the reign of William and Mary, HMS Sussex was Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler's flagship, escorting a large fleet of 40 warships and 166 merchant ships to the Mediterranean on her first major voyage, when she was lost in February 1694. Research indicates that her Admiral also had a secret mission: to pay a large sum of money to the Duke of Savoy, an ally of Britain in the War of the League of Augsburg. This was a coalition, also also known as the Grand Alliance, against the Sun King, Louis XIV, whose expansionist ambitions for France they wanted to curb. Evidence suggests that the payment, tons of gold coins worth around $500 million today, was lost with the ship.

Two cannon partially buried

Two cannon partially buried

The fleet was caught in a violent levante (strong easterly wind, well-known to windsurfers in nearby Tarifa), and facing the risk of being forced against the rocky Spanish coastline, the captain, Sir Francis Wheeler, attempted to tack into the wind and tuck back behind Gibraltar. Water entered the open gun ports and the end came swiftly, while the Admiral slept. The date was February 19 1694, and the ship was one day's sail out of Gibraltar; 12 other vessels in the fleet were lost. Only two persons survived the sinking; several days later Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler's body, clad in a nightshirt, washed up on shore. The funds never reached the Duke. A year later, England again attempted to ship money to Savoy - but too late. The Duke secretly changed sides and took the French offer. His defection brought the war to an end in a stalemate.

1998-2001: ODYSSEY MARINE EXPLORATION search and survey

The Sussex caught the attention of Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Tampa, Florida-based company in 1995. A researcher showed the company a diplomatic letter written shortly after the sinking which said the ship had been carrying a small fortune. The Sussex had no special renown in nautical history, unlike famous sunken galleons. So Odyssey hired researchers to comb archives in England, France, the Netherlands and the United States for clues to the cargo and its resting place.

Odyssey conducted offshore search and survey operations in the area between 1998 and 2001, and the company believed it had identified the shipwreck site at a depth of 1,000 metres. During the course of Odyssey's search expeditions, 418 targets were located - ancient shipwreck sites, including a Punic or Phoenician merchant vessel dating from the 3rd to 5th Century BC, Roman sites over 2,000 years old, as well as many modern shipwrecks, aircraft and debris. One wreck, the only one with cannon, fit the description of the Sussex - including cannon distribution (18) and size, anchors (2), approximate date and location, located very close to the position where the ship had foundered, according to the Fleet Secretary's report in 1694.


In 2002 Odyssey Marine Exploration signed an agreement with the UK Government which required a Project Plan for the shipwreck believed to be HMS Sussex to be submitted and aproved. This was the first time any government had entered into an agreement with the private sector for the archaeological excavation of a sovereign warship.

An advisory committee was formed to provide guidance on the project plan's archaeological management team and archaeological best practice. The body is named the Sussex Archaeological Executive (SAE) and in the spirit of collaboration, Odyssey and the Government each appointed an equal number of members, subject to approval by both parties. It was intended that the SAE would streamline project oversight and liaise between the Government and Odyssey during time-sensitive offshore operations. The Project Plan would be implemented in a modular manner with SAE review at agreed stages.

The partnership agreement was to split the profits or appraised values of the recovered coins on a sliding scale that favoured Odyssey at first and then the Government. Odyssey was to get 80 percent of the proceeds up to $45 million, 50 percent from $45 million to $500 million and 40 percent above $500 million. The British Government would get the rest. Archaeologists have criticized the British Government's treasure hunt approach.

At the time, Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said, "After years of research, millions of dollars of exhaustive underwater search, and extensive due diligence by Her Majesty's Government, we are finally able to begin the excavation. This will be the deepest archaeological excavation of a 17th-century shipwreck ever undertaken and we are excited to be working with the Government of the United Kingdom on this historic project."       


Odyssey stated that the site was in international waters, while the Spanish Government affirmed it was in Spanish waters. Having investigated the position of the site, we can say it is located in the area south-east of Gibraltar marked "High Seas" on this chart. The territorial rights in this part of the Mediterranean Sea are complex due to the presence of Gibraltar (UK territory, on the Spanish mainland) and Ceuta (Spanish territory, on the African mainland).

Gibraltar has never claimed its 12-mile limit, which leads to its supposition that the area is international. However Spain, which has always maintained that Gibraltar has no territorial waters (as there were none written into the Treaty of Utrecht), draws a different chart and claims the site to be within its 12-mile limit. 

The Council for British Archaeology states that the wreck is understood to be in waters that are disputed as being either Spanish or international. There are various ongoing disputes between Gibraltar and Spain arising out of this lack of clarity, which has never been tested in international courts.  

The wreck is over 2,500 feet (762 metres) down and can only be investigated using robots. Properly recorded archaeological investigation may or may not be feasible for an ancient vessel of this age at this depth using current remote technology.

Continued......... Excavation of the Shipwreck