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Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Marine salvage law ~ Whiskey galore !!

The law of salvage is a principle of maritime law whereby any person who helps recover another person's ship or cargo in peril at sea is entitled to a reward commensurate with the value of the property saved.


Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain of barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, made generally of charred white oak. Some famous names in Indian market are : Ballantine’s; Imperial Blue; Jack Daniel’s; Original Choice; Old Tavern; Royal Stag; Bag Piper;  Mcdowell; Officer’s Choice;  Johnnie Walker, Black dog !  ~ and many of you know it better.

To many drinkers ! -   whisky is one of the most loved spirits. A whisky lover would take a lot of pride in knowing what goes into making it as whisky-making is an art that takes years to master.   Then there is the classic doubt on whether it is -  ‘whisky’ or  ‘whiskey’ !!  - according to some, Irish Distillers started the practice of spelling the alcohol differently and thus if the spirit is made in  Ireland or the United States, it’s spelled “whiskey”. In other parts of the world, it’s spelled “whisky”. The plurals also change — whisky becomes whiskies, while whiskey becomes whiskeys!!”

The inhabitants of the isolated Scottish island of Todday in the Outer Hebrides were largely unaffected by wartime rationing until 1943, when the supply of whisky ran out. As a result, gloom descended on the disconsolate islanders. In the midst of this catastrophe, Sergeant Odd returns on leave from the army to court Peggy, the daughter of the local shopkeeper, Joseph Macroon.. .. during  a night-time fog, the freighter SS Cabinet Minister runs aground near Todday in heavy fog and begins to sink. Two local inhabitants, the Biffer and Sammy MacCodrun, row out to lend assistance, and learn from its departing crew that the cargo consists of 50,000 cases of whisky. They quickly spread the news.

SS Politician was a cargo ship that ran aground off the coast of the Hebridean island of Eriskay in 1941. Her cargo included 22,000 cases of malt whisky and £3 million worth of Jamaican banknotes. Much of the whisky was recovered by islanders from across the Hebrides, contrary to marine salvage laws. Because no duty had been paid on the whisky, members of HM Customs and Excise pursued and prosecuted those who had removed the cargo.

Politician was completed in 1923 under the name London Merchant. She was a general cargo ship that traded between Britain, the United States and Canada, and up and down the west coast of the US. In 1924—during the years of American prohibition—Oregon's state prohibition commissioner seized her cargo of whisky despite its having been approved and sealed by US federal authorities. After the British Embassy in Washington complained to the US government, the whisky was released back to the ship. During the Second World War Politician participated in the Atlantic convoys between the UK and US. In February 1941 she was on her way to the north of Scotland, where she ran aground while attempting to rendezvous with a convoy. No-one was badly injured or killed in the accident.

The local islanders continually visited the wreck of Politician to unload whisky, even though it was in a hold filled with marine engine oil and seawater. Customs men undertook raids, arresting many and seizing the boats of those suspected of taking part. The excise authorities pushed for charges under the punitive customs legislation, but the authorities charged those arrested with theft. Many were found not guilty or not proven, and several were fined; 19 were incarcerated at Inverness Prison for terms ranging between 20 days and two months. Salvors were used to rescue as much of the ship as they could, and the whisky they raised was shipped back to its bonded warehouses; this was also looted during its journey. Two salvage crews removed much of the cargo, and the second crew raised the wreck off the seabed. Part of the ship's hold, and her stern, were cut away and sank to the bottom of Eriskay Sound; the remainder of the hold was destroyed by gelignite to prevent further looting.

A few of the Jamaican banknotes from Politician were presented at banks in Britain, Jamaica and other countries. As a result, in 1952 the blue ten-shilling notes were withdrawn and replaced with notes of the same design, printed in purple. Bottles of whisky have been raised from the seabed by divers, and some have been found in hiding places on Eriskay; these have been auctioned. The story of the wreck and looting was the basis for the book Whisky Galore; an adaptation was released as a film in 1949 and a remake in 2016.

In September 1941 the whisky that had been salvaged by BISC was shipped to the mainland and put into locked railway carriages which had the excise seal placed on them. By the time the trains reached Kilmarnock on their way to the same bonded warehouses the cargo had left in January 1941, the customs seals had been broken, the doors unlocked and the cargo part looted. Relations between the police and Customs men became increasingly strained by late 1941, and Gledhill began to criticise the force in his reports back to London.

The BISC salvors spent over four months preparing Politician for refloating. They removed extraneous weight, patched the underwater holes, pumped compressed air into the hold, and waited until the weather conditions and tides were right. On 22 September 1941 they finished preparations and the ship was lifted off the rocks. BISC's site agent, Percy Holden, wanted to tow the ship the seven miles (eleven kilometres) to Lochboisdale, where she could be beached to await the heavy tugs needed to tow her to the docks on the River Clyde, where she could be scrapped.

During salvage operations,  divers reported that number five hold still contained "one stack of probably about 2,000 cases of spirits and, on the bottom of the hold, a very large accumulation of loose paper, carton cases and loose bottles, both broken and unbroken". McColl was concerned about the possibility of more thefts from the ship and requested permission from his superiors to have the hold demolished by explosives.  He was given permission to proceed,   16 sticks of gelignite were used to destroy number five hold and its contents.

This perhaps was an act of  "the ultimate in stupidity, waste and vandalism, symbolising a mental attitude beyond commoners’ comprehension.  With no accurate figures available, thousands of bottles were thus destroyed, to the use of none.  Holden returned with his salvage team in March 1942 to cut the stern—including number five hold—from the rest of Politician. Once the waterlogged hold had been removed, the remainder of the ship rose from the sandbank, at which point she was towed to Lochboisdale and then on to Rothesay.

The salvors extracted £360,000 in Jamaican currency from number five hold and passed it to Gledhill.  He sealed the money in boxes and sent it to the salvage agents via the local post office on South Uist. The notes were handed over to the Bank of England. Many had already been presented at banks for exchange.  The islanders involved in removing the whisky were resentful of those who had provided information to the customs officials. There was also a bad feeling towards those who had sold the whisky they found.  At the official inquiry into the sinking of Politician, Captain Worthington and First Mate Swain were cleared of all blame for her fate. Both returned to sea. Worthington captained SS Arica, which was sunk in November 1942 by U160; he survived the war and died in 1961. Swain commanded SS Custodian, another ship in the Harrison line, and survived the war.  

In 1949 Mackenzie's novel became the source for a film of the same name produced by Ealing Studios; Mackenzie made a brief appearance as the captain of SS Cabinet Minister, the renamed ship that grounded itself on the rocks.  Because of the loss of the Jamaican notes, and the number that were being cashed in banks, from 1 July 1952 the blue ten-shilling notes were no longer accepted as legal tender. They were replaced with notes of the same design, but printed in purple on a light orange background !!

Whisky Galore! is a 1949 British film produced by Ealing Studios, starring Basil Radford, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood and Gordon Jackson. It was the directorial debut of Alexander Mackendrick; the screenplay was by Compton Mackenzie, an adaptation of his 1947 novel Whisky Galore, story—based on a true event of shipwreck. 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

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