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Bermuda battles to save the cultural treasure of shipwrecks

Shipwrecks have defined Bermuda from its earliest days, even acting as an essential economic driver. Thousands of artifacts have been left behind, providing clues about life and trade of the time. Now the wrecks are getting a new life in a high-tech lab, where they will be accessible to everyone. Jeffrey Brown reports in the first of a two-part series.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who doesn’t love a shipping yarn, especially when there’s a shipwreck involved?

    But now some old wrecks are being tied to very futuristic technology.

    In the first of a two-part look, Jeffrey Brown takes us to Bermuda and San Diego for his ongoing series Culture at Risk.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s not our usual dress or mode of transportation. But this is an unusual tale, one that takes us underwater, exploring shipwrecks in Bermuda.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Shipwrecks have to be cultural heritage. They can’t be anything but the total summation of a certain culture’s way of trying to move across the water, essentially.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And also goes on a very different kind of dive.

  • Falko Kuester:

    Right now, we can literally dive, swim right towards the shipwreck itself.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Through virtual reality in a lab San Diego.

  • Falko Kuester:

    What we’re looking at — for Bermuda right now are five billion data points that have been collected for the first set of shipwrecks that have been documented.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We begin in the real world of Bermuda, a British island territory that sits 600 miles to the east of the U.S. and is home to some 65,000 residents.

    It’s known for its breathtaking coastlines and beaches, its high-priced real estate, the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle, and its four-centuries-long history of shipping and wrecks, some 300 of them that have crashed along the island’s encircling reefs.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    There’s a charming kind of feeling about being around a shipwreck. To me, it’s quintessentially Bermudian, this kind of thing, but it’s also eroding.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Philippe Rouja, who’s been diving and exploring these sites since he was a teenager, now heads the effort to preserve them as part of the island’s cultural heritage, a way to understand its story.

    The 49-year-old is Bermuda’s official custodian of historic shipwrecks.

    I have run across some interesting titles, but that’s a good one.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    You know, when you’re surrounded by 300 shipwrecks, you kind of need a job. You need someone to tend directly to that singular problem. It’s a fairly singular Bermuda problem, having too many shipwrecks.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the wrecks are everywhere.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    The wrecks are everywhere. Yes, and, actually, you stumble on them all the time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Shipwrecks have defined Bermuda from its earliest days. In 1609, shipwrecked English colonists were the first to arrive on the uninhabited island while they attempted to bring supplies to the British colony of Jamestown.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    We are a shipwreck-based economy. At the very outset, the very beginning of Bermuda, the first thing those first settlers did was go back out to the ship that they were on and salvage it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And Rouja says Bermuda became heavily dependent upon the many wrecks that followed.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Because they’re literally the only goods and products that would get to Bermuda in that kind of mass.

    Other than moving cargo around, a shipwreck suddenly means that the local population early on could have access to wood and timber and iron and sails, and all those goods that you can’t get otherwise.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Also left behind, thousands of artifacts, providing clues about life on board the ship, trade and the economy of a given period, and much more.

    Most now sit in museums, like the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute.

  • William Gillies:

    These are my treasures.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These are your treasures.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But many can be found in private collections like that of William Gillies’, an amateur oceanographer and diver who began exploring Bermuda’s wrecks in the 1960s.

  • William Gillies:

    This onion bottle here, that bottle, we can date to 1715, 1720. And we knew that they got the cipher G.R. on it for King George of England. And we know that George I came to the throne in 1714. So, we said, well, they tie in very nicely. So we put a date of 1714 on it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Gillies is an expert at restoring shipwrecked artifacts. And Rouja sometimes brings him new findings to study.

  • William Gillies:

    The cork has leaked. And I think it has dregs in it. But I don’t think it’s the pure wine.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Rouja discovered this bottle of wine, thought to be more than 150 years old, while surveying the remains of the Mary Celestia, a blockade runner used during the Civil War by the Confederacy which sank in 1864 under mysterious circumstances.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There was no wine-tasting for us, but another find, a bottle of perfume, offered a rare smell of the past, when Rouja brought it to Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone of the Lili Bermuda Perfumery.

  • Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone:

    A hundred and fifty years, and it’s still intact. And that was never heard of, and not just in Bermuda, but worldwide. I mean, this — I was in the presence of the oldest intact perfume bottle in the world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The liquid had decomposed, leaving an awful stench. But a chemical analysis showed the fragrance was made from grapefruit, ambers and musks.

  • Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone:

    And we said, OK, now let’s recreate it to what it would have smelled when it actually sank 150 years ago.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, that is the scent of the British royal courts?

  • Isabelle Ramsay-Brackstone:

    Victoria. Queen Victoria would have worn this, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Today, Bermuda’s wrecks are legally protected cultural sites. A license is required for marine archaeology and recovered artifacts belong to the government.

    And the wrecks also serve another important function, in Bermuda’s efforts to preserve its marine ecosystem in the face of global warming and the depletion of fish populations. The fish, in fact, love the wrecks.

    Did you come here as a kid?

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Oh, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We visited the hulking remains of two early 20th century ships, the Emma Davis and the Norkoplin. Above water, they’re almost like beautiful, rusted sculptures.

    So, now we’re literally able to stand inside the ship.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Yes. Yes, no, we’re in it, and it actually lets you see some of the sort of elegant details of it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Below water, another kind of wonder, the wreckage transformed into a new kind of reef.

    You know what hits me being under the water there, is just how the ship becomes part of the ecosystem, right? It feels very natural. And everything is growing on it. And the fish are swimming all around in it.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    Everything’s hiding in it. No, it’s — yes, it’s a lovely home. This is the romantic era of sail.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Indeed, Rouja is relying on the romance to interest a new generation in their cultural and environmental importance.

  • Philippe Rouja:

    I think people want a story that is bigger than themselves.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But he and others are now doing much more, taking these wrecks out of the ocean, and into a high-tech lab, where they will have a new life accessible to everyone.

  • Falko Kuester:

    We scale them, physically analyze them with a flick of the wrist.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    We will have that part of the story tomorrow night.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Black Bay, Bermuda.

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