Our Assistant Curator of Ship Models, Nick Ball, looks at the story of the shipwrecked Thetis. What can it tell us about the Navy's role in protecting trade around the globe?
In 1829 the Royal Navy frigate HMS Thetis was dashed against the rocks in a storm off of Cape Frio, Brazil. She sank in a small cove with the loss of 28 men and her cargo of gold and silver, which was being transported on behalf of private traders.
Although initially prohibited by the Admiralty, by the 1830s it was common for the Navy to charge a fee to transport valuable ‘freight’ such as gold and silver on behalf of private traders.
After the disastrous loss of the Thetis, the Royal Navy sent Captain Thomas Dickinson to recover the precious cargo from the wreck. He took command of HMS Lightning and set out for Brazil.
The resourceful captain spent over a year at Cape Frio, and using diving bells of his own design, oversaw the recovery of guns, anchors, equipment and nearly three quarters of the £160,000 worth of gold and silver from the wreck (about £8 million today).
The salvage operation continued well under a younger officer, Captain De Roos, after Dickinson had a disagreement with his commanding officer at Rio de Janeiro. However, the success of the operation was largely down to Dickinson’s ingenuity in design of the diving bell and launch, which attracted the attention of the Royal Society interested in scientific inventions.
Only after a long legal battle with the other salvors did Dickinson receive any reward for his work. He died at Greenwich Hospital on 30 July 1854 but the story of the Thetis salvage shows the important role of the Royal Navy in protecting trade around the globe.
Come and see Dickinson’s own models of the diving bells in the revamped Voyagers gallery which opened last November. It tells the story of Britons and the sea by introducing the key themes of the Museum and showcasing the diversity of the Collections. Find out more