Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Sunken Treasure, Death-Defying Adventure, Sibling Rivalry: How Charles and John Deane Invented Modern Deep-Sea Diving and Saved the British Empire"

From Epic Magazine:


On the morning of August 29, 1782,
the HMS Royal George,
a colossal warship of five decks and 108 guns,
was anchored just off
Portsmouth Harbor at Spithead,
a favored rendezvous for the British fleet.
It was 9 am, a blustery morning, and the deck was a flurry of activity as ships arrived from shore to provision the vessel for a voyage to the Mediterranean. Its mission was to break the French and Spanish blockade of the vital British garrison on Gibraltar. The Crown was fighting a war on two fronts, against ancient rivals in Europe and its rebellious American colonies across the Atlantic. The Royal George could prove decisive. With its speed and complement of cannons, the ship was one of the most fearsome weapons in Britain’s navy. A veteran of many wars, the Royal George rose tall among the fleet, an oak leviathan festooned with acres of sails, the ship’s brass gleaming in the daylight.

In choppy waters, a delivery boat filled with casks of rum pulled alongside the Royal George. On board, wives visited husbands, children said goodbye to fathers, and merchants sold cheap trinkets and watches to the crewmen. Mingling with the sailors were “Spithead nymphs,” women who earned their living servicing men among the berths. On the gun decks, a group of sailors rolled 50 cannons to the centerline to help the vessel heel over, easing the delivery of the rum casks.

But the Royal George failed to hold steady, and the heel steepened. Lieutenant Philip Charles Durham, the officer of the watch, realized that his crew had failed to shut the gunports, now submerged, and the ship was rapidly taking on water. He ordered all hands to run the guns back to their original positions, but it was too late. The sea poured in and the ship was tipped onto its side.
Below decks chaos broke out. Cannons came loose from their lashings, careening down the sloping deck and crushing hundreds of sailors. Visitors and crew were trapped by torrents of chilly seawater rushing through the berths and passages. The ship’s towering masts crashed down onto the rum delivery boat, carving it in half. Those still on the top deck panicked; sailors, women, and children leaped into the water, only to be caught up in the ship’s tangled rigging.

The gunwales disappeared beneath the foaming waves, followed by the top deck, then the forecastle, until the entire ship sank beneath the swell of the sea and settled upright on the seabed 80 feet below. After 10 minutes, only the mast tips remained visible, like fingers grasping for the surface. The events of that morning became one of the worst maritime disasters in British naval history, with more than 900 sailors and civilians lost.

But the Royal George did not disappear from the minds of English mariners, even when settled on the seafloor. Everyone knew that the ship contained a vast fortune—the equivalent of $2.8 million worth of guns, timber, rum, and brass machinery—sitting in silt, just 80 feet from the surface. But in the era before the invention of diving technology, descending to those depths carried the risk of death. Yet the treasure that sank with the lost Royal George continued to beckon, seducing men who were desperate to change the circumstances of their lives.
Charles and John Deane, brothers born four years apart, grew up in a foul dockyard precinct on the edge of London. A former fishing settlement on the Thames, the area had been swallowed by Europe’s largest city. By 1800, it had become a squalid reach of maritime activity and drinking establishments overlooking a fetid waterfront. Locals called the area Deptford Green, but there was nothing green about the landscape of shipyards, slaughterhouses, and candle factories that stained the masonry black. Among the slum’s infamies was the tavern where Christopher Marlowe, one of England’s greatest playwrights, was said to have been stabbed to death in 1593.

It was ironic that the Deane family ended up living in a slum along the shores of England’s largest shipyard. A century earlier, their great-great-grandfather Sir Anthony Deane had been one of the world’s most renowned naval architects. He had spearheaded the construction of the British navy during the reign of Charles II and wrote Deane’s Doctrine of Naval Architecture, 1670, one of the earliest and most influential books on hydrodynamics. His portrait hangs in London’s National Maritime Museum. It was Sir Anthony’s navy that gave Britain unrivaled control of the seas, edging out other European powers. One of Sir Anthony’s 16 children, John, solidified the family’s fame when he was hired by Peter the Great to construct the Russian navy.

But the Deanes’ royal titles and estates had long since been squandered by the time Charles and John were born; their father toiled as a caulker, patching seams in the hulls of ships that his forebears once designed. When the brothers were boys, they were enrolled by their parents as “objects of charity” at the Royal Hospital School. They received a subsidized education, but in return they had to spend seven years as low-paid mariners. The school sought to prepare its charges for the harsh life that awaited them. The 700 students wore naval uniforms and were taught to march in unison. Charles, the older brother, shipped out in 1810 on a merchant vessel at 14 years old. Three years later, John was picked for a plum assignment as a captain’s servant. Charles and John served on many vessels, eventually sailing together to Madras, Bombay, and Macau—all difficult voyages, long months of tilting horizons while en route to distant points in the sprawling British Empire.

During the Deane brothers’ years in the merchant marine, they experienced the enormous hardships of life at sea, crammed together with hundreds of other men, poorly provisioned and tossed by waves. They survived disease and disaster; they saw men receive 300 lashes and witnessed others buried at sea. And, like many poor hands returning home to England and sailing past Portsmouth and the Royal George, they fantasized about the riches below.

In the previous decades, many daring divers had attempted to retrieve sunken treasure in a variety of contraptions—wooden containers, copper jackets, metal canisters. Some died. Others were crippled. One of the men who attempted to reach the Royal George was William Tracey, a successful ship owner who dreamed of even more wealth and constructed a formfitting diving suit out of copper with holes for his extremities and a hose to deliver air from the surface. But when he sailed into Spithead in 1782 and took his suit into the sea, he lasted only a few minutes before resurfacing. “The pressure of the water occasioned my great injury, as it was from that pressure I am now a cripple,” wrote Tracey, who lost all of his money after the misadventure and ended up in Fleet Prison, a grim debtors’ prison in London.

Yet the wreck of the Royal George remained a tantalizing prize, preserved and nearly undisturbed since the day it sank. So it was with all shipwrecks, not just in England but around the world. Since ships first sailed, countless vessels had gone to the bottom, where they remained out of reach. Throughout history, humans were limited to the surface of the sea—and feared the deep. The underwater world was regarded with superstition, a mysterious place where monsters dwelled. Every shoreline marked entry to this immense unconquered frontier, beckoning adventurous souls and, by the early 19th century, clever engineers. They were drawn by the thrill of exploration and the allure of instant fortunes—thousands of years of wealth lost beneath the waves.
After the Deane brothers fulfilled their service as merchant marines, Charles found himself back in Deptford, living just down a dirt road from his childhood home. At 29, Charles was moody, well-worn, and complicated—a loner who had trouble getting work. He struggled to provide for his three children and eventually took a lowly job patching ships’ seams alongside his father. Desperate to find a way out of poverty, he began sketching an extraordinary new device that would make him rich. Like his ancestors, Charles had a passion and talent for engineering, and he knew that the greatest danger to ships at sea was not water but fire. So he devised an “Apparatus to extinguish Fire in its origin”—a copper helmet riveted to a leather or canvas jacket and fitted with a hose that delivered fresh air from a pump. On his patent application, Charles described his helmet as a 

“Machine to be Worn by Persons Entering Rooms or
other Places filled with Smoke or other Vapour,
for the Purpose of Extinguishing Fire or Extricating
Persons or Property therein.”
Charles Deane dreamed up the idea of a smoke
helmet for firefighters in 1823
The idea was promising enough that Charles was able to persuade his employer at the shipyard to invest 417 pounds in the project, the equivalent of about $47,000 today. While still working full-time at the shipyard, he spent a couple years perfecting his invention, commissioning four prototypes. It was the height of the Industrial Revolution, whose mechanized wonders and technological innovations were transforming England and making men wealthy. Charles was sure that his smoke helmet would propel him into their ranks. He gave demonstrations wherever he could, but Charles was not a salesman and could not find a market for his invention. Frustrated, he tossed the helmets onto a shelf at the shipyard, where they sat for months, ignored and practically forgotten.

Unlike Charles, John was gregarious, made friends easily, and excelled at his work. For several years, he had been largely supporting his older brother. When John received a plum position aboard an East India ship, he convinced the captain to hire Charles. When Charles needed money, John provided it. During their difficult moments—in the harsh naval school, during their hard times in Deptford—John offered cheerful words when Charles was low.

While Charles toiled in Deptford, John lived 60 miles southeast in an oyster-harvesting village called Whitstable and worked as a “sweeper,” employed by a salvage company that trolled for lost anchors and other valuables on the shallow seafloor. Sweeping paid modestly, but it was reliable work and offered the promise of discovery. One day, John and his crew would pull up a downed bale of cotton or salvage lumber; the next, a brass gun or crate of barnacled brandy....