Didi, bring back our treasure

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By AMIT ROY
  • Published 28.09.11
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London, Sept. 27: If Mamata Banerjee has the stomach for an empire-strikes-back-style battle, she can request Manmohan Singh to stake claim to silver worth crores found in the North Atlantic and restore to Calcutta some wealth from its bustling past.

Britain’s legal claim to 7 million ounces of silver worth £150 million (Rs 1,150 crore) found in the wreckage of a British cargo steamship is being challenged by Indian historians who say the treasure belongs to India.

The discovery of the wreck was reported by The New York Times on Sunday and by more newspapers since then but not much has been written about the strong Calcutta connection.

On December 5, 1940, the SS Gairsoppa was loaded in Calcutta port on what was to prove its final voyage “with nearly 7,000 tonnes of diverse medium and high-value cargo, including pig iron, tea, general cargo, and a large quantity of silver”. Calcutta was then still the centre of industrial and commercial activity for the British.

Part of the 200 tonnes of silver on board was in the form of bars containing 2.4 per cent gold, which the salvage company has hailed as “an added bonus”.

The Gairsoppa’s ultimate destination was Liverpool but the slow-moving and unprotected vessel had no chance against a German U-boat which caught up and sank it in the North Atlantic, 300 miles off the Irish coast.

Of the 83-member crew, a mixture of British and Indians, only one survived. The 32 who managed to scramble onto lifeboats were machine-gunned by the Germans.

The wreck of the Gairsoppa has been located by Odyssey Marine, an American exploration company that seems to be particularly adept at finding ships thought to be lost in the deep.

Using the latest technology, it found the Gairsoppa at a depth of 4,700 metres and is now preparing to start the salvage mission.

If the cargo is brought up intact, according to a spokesperson for the department of transport in London, “the silver belongs to the British government”.

Under the terms of a contract, Odyssey Marine will take the lion’s share — 80 per cent — of the value of whatever is salvaged, while the British government will get only 20 per cent. Converted to Indian currency, it will mean Rs 230 crore.

This is because Odyssey Marine, which won the exploration rights through open tender, “has taken all the risks”, the spokesperson pointed out.

Historian Madhusree Mukherjee, author of the controversial book Churchill’s Secret War which alleges that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister was responsible for aggravating the worst effects of the Bengal famine, wants scrutiny of Britain’s legal entitlement.

“There is a lot more to this than meets the eye,” was her initial reaction.

Mukherjee, who has researched extensively on British shipping to and from India during World War II, said: “My best guess is that the British banks in Calcutta and possibly the Bengal treasury as well emptied out their coffers, and this was likely done in great secrecy. Why they did this at this point — whether for safekeeping, or because the UK needed the silver, I don’t know. Chances are the latter, because this happened before Japan was perceived as a threat.”

By way of background, Mukherjee, who lives in Germany, explained: “In total, India contributed about £2 billion to the war effort, of which it received roughly half back as repayment after the war. The Indian contribution was in the form of goods and services.”

She emphasised: “I did not know of silver being transferred to the UK during the war; there is no mention of it in the standard text on the wartime Indian economy. If the silver, at least that part that was state-owned, had stayed in India, it could have been used to fight inflation, which subsequently proved so deadly because it was a major cause of the Bengal famine.

“If silver had been released to the Indian market, it could have helped mop up some of the excess cash. Later, after famine broke out, there was talk of sending silver to India to fight inflation. So far as I know, that did not happen.”

London-based historian Kusoom Vadgama, who has covered the war years in three books on the UK-India relationship, including India in Britain, believes that on moral and legal grounds “the silver belongs to India” — and that the Indian government should press its claim.

Although India was not consulted about the war against Germany, it contributed goods and services that included “uniforms, tea, sandbags and 55 million pairs of boots — that’s an awful lot of boots”.

She also did not know of the silver shipment by the British government. “When Britain was at war with Germany, India was at war with Germany. India was their property. They did not have to ask anybody. And, in 1940, who do you ask?”

Vadgama said India should now urge Britain to come clean on precisely how much gold and silver were spirited out.

“We have a right to know what was taken out of India,” she declared. “Britain has done a lot of good things in India — let them return this silver as one more gesture.”

Odyssey Marine, the US firm, has been remarkably open about its exploration work and the background to one of the most exciting finds in marine history.

The SS Gairsoppa was a steel-hulled British cargo steamship built at Palmer’s Co, Newcastle, in 1919 and launched on August 12 as the War Roebuck, but was “renamed in October to Gairsoppa in honour of the stunning waterfalls in south-west India of the same name”.

According to information supplied to The Telegraph by Odyssey Marine, India Records in the British Museum state that “at least a portion of the Gairsoppa’s silver was shipped from Calcutta on December 5, 1940, in the form of 2,817 ingots, with records indicating that the silver being shipped from the facility likely contained approximately 2.4 per cent gold.”

It said: “The most logical explanation for the cargo is that the silver comprised enforced taxation. Not surprisingly, throughout World War II Britain imposed stringent controls on her colonies’ economies. Large parts of their financial surpluses were transferred to the Imperial Government as free gifts. India was no different, where taxes were high and new impositions created to pay for war.”