Time was in Merrie Olde England, any vessel wrecked on British shores was a royal prerogative and its contents devolved to the crown. The same was true for beached whales, which along with sturgeon were "royal fish". Times have changed and now the laws of maritime salvage favor the owners of the vessel. Still, there has been little call in Britain to enforce its ancient laws to compel those on shore to restore what they may have scavenged from shipwrecks to the rightful owners. That is, until now.
The MSC Napoli, a fully laden container ship, was severely damaged in a English Channel storm last week and deliberately grounded off the coast of Devon to prevent the ship from breaking up in deep water. All 26 crew were rescued, but dozens of containers - and a fuel oil spill - washed into the sea and came ashore along a wide stretch of beach. And here is where things appear to have gotten out of hand.
According to the BBC:
"The police said organised gangs were targeting the beach and were behind some of the worst looting.
Over the last two days scavengers have descended on the beach, taking away goods that included BMW motorbikes, wine, face cream and nappies.
Officers closed roads to the beach to deter treasure-seekers and to allow contractors to start the clear-up operation, which is expected to begin at 0700 GMT on Wednesday.
That meant people had to walk several miles to the beach but that did not deter about 200 scavengers who were rummaging through the cargo...
...some of the items plundered from the container ship have already been listed on the internet auction website eBay.
BMW steering wheel airbags - advertised as coming from the Napoli - were up for sale online."
Not only goods for sale but personal belongings were among the looted cargo. Having once shipped my worldly goods from Southern Africa to Boston by sea, I can only imagine the shock felt by one couple that reportedly saw television coverage of crowds rifling through their own possessions on the beach.
To make matters worse, the wreck occurred in a World Heritage Site and threatens sea birds and marine life as well as private property.
"About 200 of the vessel's 2,323 containers have gone overboard, 158 of which are classed as having potentially hazardous contents."