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The Empire at the Bottom of the Sea

Documents from the Royal Society reveal the debate between State and Science, sparked by a shipwreck in Brazil

Painting Death of a ship, the HMS Thetis, by Owen Stanley (undated). This is the only known image of the ship

National Library of Australia Painting Death of a ship, the HMS Thetis, by Owen Stanley (undated). This is the only known image of the shipNational Library of Australia

After reading the article An Inconvenient Pinch of Magic that appeared in the English language edition of Pesquisa FAPESP (Issue No. 199), Keith Moore, director of the archives at the Royal Society, sent a message advising that he had run across documents about the debate that began at that institution after the wreck of the British frigate HMS Thetis in 1830 at Cabo Frio (on the coast of Rio Janeiro State). To Moore, this was not merely an odd case that happened to have occurred in Brazil, but an event that raised important questions about the development of science in that era.

With a crew of 300 men, and armed with 46 cannons, the Thetis was returning to England with valuables worth $810,000 at the time. It was not only treasure that was lost in the disaster, but faith in the functioning of the English imperial network, which had been seen as infallible. The accident questioned the ability of the English to operate in faraway places. There was an urgent need to discover what had happened, and so science was called upon to intervene in order to explain the causes of the shipwreck and, later, recover the fortune buried at the bottom of the ocean. Documents in the archives of the Royal Society record the discussions that took place at the time. Director Moore ties the huge scientific interest that there was in the disaster of the HMS Thetis to the beginning of a movement for partnership between the State and science, starting with the maritime issue. Nascent at the start of the 19th century, this bond would become the basis for the 20th century expansion of the British empire.

The story of the shipwreck is well known, but the documentation had been explored by only two researchers, both from the University of London: Felix Driver of Royal Holloway College, and Luciana Martins of Birkbeck College. Martins is the author of O Rio de Janeiro dos viajantes: o olhar britânico (2001) (The Travelers’ Rio de Janeiro: the British View). The two researched the subject in Shipwreck and Salvage in the Tropics: the Case of the HMS Thetis, 1830-1854, which appeared in the Journal of Historical Geography. “The study of the Thetis reveals what happened when the network of power and knowledge broke down, and how science was called upon to repair and rebuild that structure that kept the British empire going,” says Luciana Martins. The Brazilian researcher earned a PhD in geography at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and has been living in London for 17 years, where she works at the Department of Ibero-American Studies at Birkbeck. “My interest in the Thetis comes from my encounter with oil paintings of the salvage of the treasure as depicted by John Christian Sketchy, at the National Maritime Museum in London, and recollections from my adolescence when I spent vacations in Arraial do Cabo, where the shipwreck had become part of local legend,” she says. Later she realized that her recollections from the past had importance for the history of science and, with Driver, went to the archives, including records in Brazil, where there is hardly any material.

Painter and sailor John Christian Schetky described, in Salvage of Stores and Treasures from HMS Thetis at Cape Frio, Brazil, 1833, the recovery of the treasure.

Royal Museums Greenwich Painter and sailor John Christian Schetky described, in Salvage of Stores and Treasures from HMS Thetis at Cape Frio, Brazil, 1833, the recovery of the treasure.Royal Museums Greenwich

Fortunately, the British demonstrated a much greater interest in the disaster, as the Royal Society documents prove. The debates began a few months after the sinking of the frigate. In April of the year following the accident, mathematician Peter Barlow was already asking the fellows of the Royal Society, in his paper On the Errors in the Course of Vessels, Occasioned by Local Attraction: with Remarks on the Recent Loss of His Majesty’s Ship Thetis: “How can one explain that a ship might leave port, with all indications that the voyage would prosper, and then break up on rocks no more than 70 miles from its point of departure, rocks thought to be miles to the east?”

The frigate had wrecked in waters believed to be calm and familiar to the British sailors. On leaving Rio, the captain of the Thetis had made a mistake in establishing the vessel’s position with respect to Cabo Frio. That error would later be attributed to the “local (magnetic) attractions” that were thought to have affected the ship’s compass, whose case was largely made of iron, and misled the commander. (No matter how it happened, in the court martial proceedings, the captain was found to be at fault.) The strong wind, which increased the vessel’s speed, simply hastened the tragedy. Soon, shouts from the topsail warned of the presence of rocks. The mast that projected from the prow struck the island of Cabo Frio and the impact caused the three main masts to fall, killing sailors and destroying the sloops. The frigate did not sink, but the waves tossed the ship’s side against the rocks. The hull started to break open and the ship was sucked into an inlet where it continued to be hurled against the rocks. The Englishmen climbed ashore until the Thetis gave up and sunk, leaving 30 dead.

The captain sent emissaries to Rio to notify the commander of the British squadron in South America. The cargo was considered lost. In a report submitted to the Royal Society in March 1833, a summary of which survives, Captain Thomas Dickinson, who volunteered to recover the treasure, gave his version of events. “According to him, there was great consternation in Rio when it was learned that the Thetis with its cargo of $810,000 had been lost, and the captain remembers his decision upon seeing that no one seemed willing to step forward to salvage the lost property. He was convinced that the obstacles and difficulties were formidable, but could be overcome with the use of means he imagined would be practicable on that occasion,” says the document now at the British institution.

Captain Dickinson

Royal Museums Greenwich Captain DickinsonRoyal Museums Greenwich

Dickinson constructed two diving bells from water tanks he had taken from the ship, reinforcing them and installing glass windows to illuminate the interior, where there were torches. He also prepared an air pump to supply oxygen, and used tar to waterproof it. “That meant a lot of work for him, given the backwardness of native workers,” the Royal Society document observes. The Thetis had sunk in the center of the inlet. Dickinson planned to string cables from one cliff to another in order to let the bell down. “The captain said he had tremendous difficulties because of the arduous nature of the work, unhealthful climate, attacks by insects, exposure to the weather in their thatched huts, and the dangers of the dives into the sea—a combination of terrors that the author is convinced could be overcome only by English sailors,” the summary found at the British institution recalls. Dickinson also reports that the sailors had seen “five tigers on the beach.” Armed with rifles, the Englishmen fired into the shadows and found that these were sea-pigs, i.e., capybaras. The “visit” by reptiles of frightening size, like a snake, terrified his chief officer, a man “who would never be afraid of foolish things,” but the serpent did indeed “unnerve the strongest of them,” the English commander wrote.

It took several dives and a few deaths before the fortune in the Thetis could begin to be brought up from the bottom of the sea. They lived in huts in a settlement they dubbed “St. Thomas,” and where the captain fulfilled the obligations of an Englishman who worshiped his country. He celebrated dates such as the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he had participated. Worried about being robbed, Dickinson kept his eyes on his men. This was one of the reasons why he had dismissed a group of Brazilians, the “half-breeds” who had joined him at the beginning of the salvage operation. Even so, the sailors invented codes for use between those who were on the bottom and those on the surface, so as to advise each other whether or not the captain was around. They worked 12-hour shifts without food or rest. They had to remove the detritus that covered the wreck, including bodies and spoiled food from the frigate. The toxic gas almost killed a group of salvagers.

“It was a pioneering effort. At the same time as Dickinson was using his bell in extremely rough seas, Sir Basil Hall, a noted English traveler and researcher, was hailing as “a marvel” a similar operation that he was conducting in Portsmouth,” Martins observes. The salvage of the Thetis was also one of the first occasions on which drawings of the seabed were made, showing the remains of the frigate. “In the case of the Thetis, more was invested in the story of its salvage than in the report of its loss. At the time, the event was a tribute to human perseverance in the presence of the devastating power of nature,” say Driver and Martins. “Imperial eyes saw in this procedure a more or less coherent network through which information circulated until finally it was translated into established knowledge,” the researchers observe.

a drawing of the diving bell drawn by his rival, Captain De Roos

Royal Societya drawing of the diving bell drawn by his rival, Captain De RoosRoyal Society

“The State and scientists changed their focus from the colonial positions on land to the vast unexplored areas of the oceans, an intellectual space that teemed with commercial and imperial significance. With that, they elevated the status of the recently-defined ‘scientist.’ Just as they regulated and manipulated the ocean on paper, the English Admiralty used the physical ocean to transport troops, riches, and British culture to ends of the earth,” observes American historian Michael Reidy, author of Tides of History: Ocean Science and Her Majesty’s Navy (University of Chicago). According to Reidy, British naval domination was the result of close collaboration between the Admiralty and the scientific elite. Together, they transformed the unclaimed immensity of the ocean into an organized network. From this process, there emerged, quite literally, the modern scientist: one of the important links in that connection, William Whewell, coined the term “scientist” in 1833, at the height of his studies about tides. “Science broke down the limits of parsimonious support by the State in order to gain a much more generous and comprehensive financing for their research projects,” the historian explains.

Cases like the Thetis forced the system to improve its network of knowledge and showed that when the subject was the sea, the more extensive the relationship between the State and science, the better. The scientists involved in the imperial project knew that studies about the sea were very costly to finance and that only a powerful country like England was able to sustain it. “The ocean became the most fertile territory for research, with funding from the State and an international group of scientists. It was the interest in the ocean that turned science into a global task that depended heavily on support and participation by the government. This totally changed the way of conducting and thinking about science,” Reidy notes. The empire was subtly transformed by science; in turn, the modern scientist was molded by the military demand for intelligence and control over the oceans.

“The interest in the fate of the Thetis on the part of the Royal Society fellows should be viewed in the context of those contemporaneous efforts to demonstrate the practical utility of scientific thought. There was no better example of that than the science of navigation,” says Driver. In his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), astronomer John Hershel portrayed the ideal scientific observer as a well-trained naval officer. In turn, the route of a ship was like a kind of hypothesis, based on meticulous astronomical observations and mathematic calculations, that would be tested against the experience of a safe arrival at its destination. If the ship was the instrument of the experiment, its captain was the exemplary man of science. “With the Thetis, on the contrary, the ‘experience’ of navigating in the absence of points of reference failed, with catastrophic consequences for the captain and his crew. In that context, the attribution of cause and effect was inseparable from that of responsibility and blame,” Driver and Martins observe.

In order for the network of the empire, momentarily torn apart by the shipwreck, to regain the public’s trust, it was necessary to explain what had happened in a scientific way. One of the answers was directly connected to a debate that had taken place in the 1820s and 1830s, when experts in the earth’s magnetism warned of the magnetic effects on ships’ compasses caused by the “local attraction.” “Iron ships were witnesses to the power that science played in the British domination of magnetic and oceanic currents. But the fate of that industry was at stake because of the navigational problems that arose with the use of iron in shipbuilding, because the hulls of ships caused changes in the compasses that left them rather unreliable,” says historian Alison Winter of the University of Chicago, author of Compasses All Awry: the Iron Ship and the Ambiguities of Cultural Authority in Victorian Britain.

“When ships began to be lost because of their compasses, the absence of a reliable means of correcting them threatened to sink scientists’ credibility in the eyes of the public.” According to Winter, during the Victorian era, the subject of the disoriented compasses of lost ships was used to describe spiritual and intellectual uncertainty and the absence of clear, established conventions of authority. “The same magnetic forces used in navigation were used to portray the way leaders exercised their power,” the historian explains.

The mixture of politics and science that dominated the Victorian period was already latent at the time of the Thetis. That explains why the Admiralty invested more than £ 500 in research by Peter Barlow, a professor of mathematics at the Royal Military Academy and member of the Royal Society. To Barlow, “every ship carries within it an insidious disease,” i.e., the effect of iron on its compass. In his 1831 exposition to the Royal Society, Barlow used as example “the sad wreck of His Majesty’s ship the Thetis,” to debate that “fundamental question” and suggested that it was the cause of the disaster. After all, although the ship’s hull was wooden, a large amount of iron had been used in its construction. “Since precautions were not taken to correct the distortions of the local attraction, I will not hesitate to state that this omission was sufficient to cause the accident,” he told the Royal Society audience. “If science can be introduced to facilitate progress in navigation and help make it safer, we cannot allow it to be disregarded in the British Navy,” Barlow added.

The scientific community’s interest in the Thetis was not limited to the causes of the shipwreck. As we have seen, reports of Dickinson’s salvage operations were read at the Royal Society, as was the report by Captain De Roos, his successor in dealing with the ship’s remains and the first to submit a report to the Society’s fellows in 1833. According to the summary available at the institution, “what was left of that poor ship was subjected to heavy pressure from the sea as if it were a hammer; the result was that a single mass was formed, a mixture of wood, gold, silver, and iron.” De Roos also relates, “on one occasion we were visited by an enormous whale that came very close to the diving bell, but luckily changed course.”

The change of command happened against Dickinson’s will, as he found himself pushed aside after all his efforts. Ultimately, both men realized that the opportunistic order came from the commander of the British squadron in Rio, who wanted the laurels and profits for himself. This did not prevent a dispute from breaking out between them within the Royal Society while seeking recognition for the scientifically unprecedented salvage operation. Dickinson also complained that in addition to suffering physical infirmities, he had been forced to handle political issues in dealings with the Brazilians. “I was always afraid of the envy of the Brazilian government about our remaining on the island. I was accused of obstructing the activities of fishermen and later, of stealing lumber,” he wrote.

Having received inquiries, the city authorities of Cabo Frio went to investigate what the group of Englishmen were doing at St. Thomas. “When they arrived, they were dumbfounded on seeing a town with comfortable houses. None of them spoke a word of English and after filling me with more ‘Your Excellencies’ than I could stand, they told me they had come to see with whether this was an invading force.” Dickinson, boasting of having learned Portuguese to such a point that he couldn’t be beat in terms of number of “Your Excellencies,” showed the officials his “fortification,” a term he used sarcastically. The Brazilians were frightened by what they took to be a cannon shot and the Englishman had fun describing his difficulty in making them understand that the noise came from the air jet of the diving bell’s pump. Finally, everyone drank to the health of William IV, Pedro I, and the city of Cabo Frio.

“At the time of the Thetis, the island had been a fishing station that had grown steadily since the 16th century. And so Dickinson’s remarks that it was thanks to the English that the town had grown are not valid. Nor is it surprising that a military force camped out for 18 months had worried the Brazilian government,” Driver and Martins observe. To Dickinson, there was no reason to pay for lumber and other materials because everything on the island “was available and could not be considered anyone’s property,” reminders of the myths about tropical abundance, available for the taking. But they ended up having to pay rent for use of the space, a small price to pay for redemption of the failure implicit in the wreck of the Thetis. Although even today it is not known what caused the end of the frigate, it was on a Brazilian island that science was able to recoup the self esteem of the British naval empire.