Kelly Toughill: War Of 1812 Loot Still Being Fought Over

Roundup: Talking About History

Relics from the War of 1812 have sparked another cross-border row, this one over the fate of booty plundered from the White House when the British sacked Washington, D.C.

A Canadian filmmaker has launched a crusade to stop U.S. treasure hunters from scavenging the wreck of HMS Fantome, which many believe was returning to Halifax with loot from the White House and Capitol Building when she sank in a storm on Nov. 24, 1814.

"It is not beyond imagination to see silverware stolen from the White House end up for sale on Ebay," said John Wesley Chisholm, who hopes to make a documentary film about the site.

"The province should revoke or suspend the licence for this site. On a larger scale, the entire (Treasure Trove Act) should be abolished."

Curtis Sprouse, founder of Sovereign Exploration Associates International, scoffed at Chisholm's criticism, saying it is companies like his that help uncover history and bring it to the public.

"We believe that preservation of history and presentation of history is of utmost importance," he said. "We are very proud of the approach we are taking."

A subsidiary of Sovereign Exploration Associates got a permit from Nova Scotia to scavenge a site near Prospect, a small town on the coast of Halifax that is surrounded by dangerous shoals.

Many believe those shoals brought down a convoy of ships returning to Halifax from a series of key battles in the War of 1812. In August 1814, British soldiers invaded Washington D.C. They looted the White House and Capitol Building, and set fire to both. A rainstorm prevented the rest of the city from burning.

Dolly Madison, wife of then-president James Madison, rescued just a few items from the White House moments before the soldiers arrived, but everything else was stolen or burned. At least some of the booty made it north, for Canadian Archibald Kains returned a jewellery box to the White House in 1939 that he said was stolen by his grandfather 125 years before.

The fleet of ships then attacked Baltimore. That battle inspired the national anthem penned by Francis Scott Key: The Star-Spangled Banner.

The ships then sailed for Halifax. The theory is that they mistook Prospect for Halifax Harbour in a bad storm, and turned in to the shoals. Historians believe that up to four ships were sailing with HMS Fantome when it went down.

Divers and archeologists working for Sovereign began exploring the shoals this year. Sprouse stressed they haven't confirmed the Fantome convoy is there.

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