The Isles of Scilly is rich in maritime history. Below is the story of one of the many wrecks in and around the Isles. Each wreck has its own individual story to tell.
The Loss of Man o'war Colossus 1798
Sir William Hamilton, British Minister to the Court of the Two Sicilies 1764 - 1800, was a noted amateur scholar and archaeologist - an 18th century 'connoisseur'. In 1772, Hamilton's first collection of classical Greek and Roman antiquities had been acquired by the recently-opened British Museum in London. Composed mainly of vases, it formed the nucleus of what is still one of the most significant collections of Greek vases in the world.
By 1796 Hamilton had assembled a second collection, "finer than the first" in his own opinion. Two years later, with Naples under threat from Napoleon's armies, Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton fled the city. The collection was hastily packed and part of it was dispatched to England on board the ageing Colossus. The ship, in poor condition after serving as an armed storeship at the Battle of Cape St Vincent and at the Battle of the Nile, took a month to reach British waters, the first landfall being Scilly.
Anchoring within the islands, she was caught in a fierce storm on December 10th 1798, and dragged her anchors until she struck the rocks off Southard Well Point, Samson. The Navy declared the ship a total loss, and for nearly two centuries part of Hamilton's collection lay on the seabed.
In July 1975, an experienced team of divers located the wreck and obtained a governmental license to excavate the site under archaeological supervision. The results of the first season exceeded all expectations, with the recovery of more than 8000 pottery fragments dating from the 4th to 7th century BC. These fragments were sent to the British Museum for study and conservation, with the ultimate aim of assembling entire vases.
By 1978, the site appeared to have less to offer the archaeological salvors, and underwater activities gradually ceased. In the summer of 1999 local divers discovered a second wreck site a short distance away from the original excavation. This site has also proved to be rich in artefacts; cannons, timbers and many smaller items of interest have been located. Some examples are displayed here in the Isles of Scilly Museum, and provide many insights into the workings of an 18th-century ship of the line.
Most excitingly, excavation of a piece of wood protruding from the seabed revealed a large carving from the stern of the Colossus. In common with other ships of the time, particularly warships, her stern was heavily ornamented. At almost 4 metres high, it represents a Roman warrior with a raised arm. The figure was in an exceptionally good state of preservation, revealing traces of the original paint. The figure was submerged in a sandy bottom in 11 metres of water, with strong tidal currents. Over two seasons, local salvors eventually completed the delicate task of raising the carving. The stern carving is now on display in the Tresco Garden History Room.