Money vs Memory

Editor’s Note: ECW is committed to historical preservation. Although Chris Kolakowski reacts to an instance related to a different war, this is something of concern to the general preservation community, so we’re pleased to bring it to our readers’ attention.

The recent news of the desecration of the Force Z shipwrecks, HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaysia is horrendous. As a descendent of Royal Navy veterans of both World Wars and someone who has published on Force Z, I am disturbed. These ships are the grave of 840 British sailors, including an admiral. (For more information, see the story here.) The motive for these salvors is profit, in some cases simply putting food on the table – immediate money trumping consideration of the long-term memory.

This is not a problem confined to the Gulf of Thailand.

American sites in the Pacific have suffered similar issues, especially on Corregidor and the wreck of the USS Houston. Closer to home, during the Great Depression many of New York City’s statues were vandalized for scrap, something searingly documented in Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker. Gettysburg Battlefield in particular has faced recurring issues with similar theft and destruction, as have other North American battlefields, monuments, shipwrecks and even archives.

What is to be done? What realistically can be done? Education is not necessarily the answer. The perpetrators almost always know this is illegal, and know these places and what they are. (Part of the reason the Admiralty recovered items from the Repulse is because of how they were advertised for sale.) Nonetheless, this is an ongoing battle that preservationists, historians, and stewards of history must face and fight.

Thoughts from our readers are welcome.

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