Wreck of the Warship That Inspired 'Billy Budd' Discovered Off Mexico

November 11, 1987|DANA NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer and

SAN FRANCISCO — An art dealer here Tuesday announced that his private team of scuba divers had discovered the 141-year-old wreck of a warship that was the scene of one of the most controversial hangings in U.S. Navy history and the inspiration for Herman Melville's novella "Billy Budd."

The remains of the Navy brig Somers were discovered in 110 feet of water off the Mexican coast, where it sank in a storm in 1846.

George Belcher, who led and partially financed the $65,000 effort to find the ship, said the discovery had been kept secret since June, 1986, to protect the well-preserved wreck from vandalism.

Mitchell Marken, the team's underwater archeologist, said, "It's the closest thing to a storybook shipwreck I have seen. The whole structure is there."

Decay and marine creatures have destroyed much of the ship's wooden superstructure, but the Somers' metal plating has preserved the shape of the vessel's hull, Marken said.

The Somers capsized in gale-force winds and went down with 32 of its 76 crew members on board on Dec. 8, 1846, while on blockade duty during the Mexican-American War.

But it was during a training voyage in 1842 that the Somers gained the most notoriety. The ship, commanded by Capt. Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, was the scene of much cruelty. Three sailors were accused by MacKenzie of plotting mutiny and were hanged. One of those executed was Philip Spencer, 18, son of the U.S. secretary of war at the time, John Canfield Spencer.

MacKenzie was later court-martialed on five charges, including murder, conduct unbecoming an officer and unnecessary cruelty, but was acquitted of all charges.

Afterward, Navy Secretary George Bancroft decided to train Navy officers at a supervised land-based academy. The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., opened in 1845.

Sailors shunned the Somers after that, saying it was haunted, and several reported hearing screams and seeing the ghostly bodies of Spencer and his companions dangling from the yardarm.

Marken said that one of his divers claimed to have heard screams resonating through the water while working on the wreck this year.

Melville's cousin was second in command of the ship and his tales of injustice and cruelty aboard the Somers inspired "Billy Budd," the most famous of Melville's works after "Moby Dick." In the novella, Budd, an innocent sailor, is impressed into service aboard a British warship and eventually hanged because he is hated by John Claggart, the cruel master-at-arms.

Chi Psi, a college fraternity of which Philip Spencer was a founding member, provided part of the funding for the expedition. Members of the fraternity sing a song in honor of Spencer to this day.

Belcher, 46, said he has conducted shipwreck research in England, Spain, Mexico and the United States and was part of a failed attempt to sail a replica of a Viking ship from Norway to Newfoundland.

Belcher was working as an art consultant to the Mexican state of Veracruz in 1985 when Veracruz Gov. Acosta Lagunes asked him to perform a historic survey of shipwrecks around the port of Veracruz. He said he used sophisticated detection equipment and, with the help of his brother Joel and magnetometer expert Daniel Koski Karell, discovered the Somers.

Belcher and Marken say they are not treasure hunters and that the Somers would yield very little in the way of precious metals anyway.

"The Somers story, her dark past and tales of ghosts are the jewels of this find, and we are showing them on film and video," Marken said. "This has been the only instance where private funds have sought history, not treasure."

James Delgado, maritime historian for the U.S. National Park Service and a supporter of Belcher's research effort, said the Somers wreck is "a unique time capsule." Belcher's group, he said, is "doing something very innovative. They are demonstrating that there is a place for venture capitalism in historical research."

Recent high-level contact between the U.S. and Mexican governments has ensured that the site will be protected and thus made possible the announcement of the discovery, Delgado said.

The U.S. Park Service may cooperate with Belcher's group in an excavation of the wreck some day, Delgado said.

Belcher's group hopes to sell videotape of its discovery to network television.

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