|CORNWALL, UK (18 Sep 2008) — It is a mystery that has perplexed treasure-hunters for centuries: how to find the wreck of a ship that sank carrying not only the world’s most famous actress, but her fantastic riches.
Now two British divers claim to have found the Nancy, which was smashed on rocks off Cornwall in a storm in 1784.
Among those on board the ill-fated voyage from Bombay to London was Ann Cargill, a beautiful opera singer as renowned for her scandalous love-life as her talents.
The 24-year-old took her fortune on board the ship after she was expelled from India for bringing shame to the country’s ‘pure shores’.
For as well as achieving huge fame and riches, she was also linked to a string of lovers and there were rumours she had given birth to an illegitimate child.
But she never made it home.
Instead the ship on which the young star was travelling sank off the Isles of Scilly, and after her unidentified body was found, she was buried in a pauper’s grave.
The former child star was adored by theatre audiences and charged ‘astonishing’ fees to play in the top theatres of London in the late 1700s.
The daughter of a coal merchant, she also embarked on numerous affairs – the first aged just 15 – and became the target of gossip and scandal.
As a teenager she eloped, ran away from theatres and her family, and eventually travelled to India where she had yet another lover and performed in packed theatres, often taking a share of the profits on top of her payment.
To the bosses of the East India Company, however, she was seen as immoral and she drowned en route to London from Bombay, carrying an estimated £200,000 fortune after they ordered her to leave.
Divers Todd Stevens and Ed Cummings say they have discovered the long-lost wreck of ‘The Nancy’, the ten-gun ship which smashed on rocks in February 1784, killing all 49 passengers.
Tragic accounts of Cargill’s death and her ‘floating in her shift’ with an infant at her bosom were published in English newspapers, and local legend has it that her lonely spirit still haunts the island spot where she died, singing a ghostly lullaby to her lost child.
As the discovery of the ship wreck was revealed yesterday, Mrs Cargill, was compared by one historian to a more modern star of the stage.
Marcus Risdell, librarian and archivist at London’s Garrick Club, said: ‘The records show that she was incredibly famous and enjoyed being in the limelight.
‘Actresses were plagued by scandal in those days – whether it was true or not – and Mrs Cargill seems to have encouraged it.
‘She once played the part of a young run away in a London theatre – and then ran away from it.’
He added: ‘But like an 18th Century version of Britney Spears, it is clear that she was also quite vulnerable – and often ended up with apparently unsuitable men.’
For over 200 years divers have been trying to find the wreck of the The Nancy, but may have simply been looking in the wrong place.
Mr Cummings, 62, said: ‘This has always been one of the most intriguing wrecks to go after. It has everything – a beautiful actress, a tragic shipwreck and a lost fortune.
‘The Nancy was bound from Bombay to London when she ran into a dreadful storm near the treacherous rocks west of Scilly.’
‘We are still searching for the gold and jewels but if we find them we will hand them all over to the Isles of Scilly Museum.’ Ed Cumming and Todd Stevens
Divers Ed Cumming and Todd Stevens have discovered the wreck of The Nancy which sunk off the Isles of Scilly. Here, one of the divers sizes up its anchor.
‘It would have been an almost hopeless position,’ said Mr Cumming.
‘Up until then it has been a good passage, but then they hit the storm. There was no lighthouse to guide them as Bishops Rock had not been built.
‘They would not have been able to see the lighthouse at St Agnes either.’
He added: ‘We are still trying to piece together the human stories around the wreck but we are sure we have found her.’
The Nancy sank off the coast of the Isles of Scilly and official papers referred to the passengers being ‘driven’ into a small island.
But Mr Cummings and Mr Stevens realised the descriptions referred to the lifeboat – and not the Nancy itself.
Ed said: ‘We realised that after the ship had hit the rocks, the passengers had got into a smaller boat and that was the one that was ‘driven’ on to Rosevear.
‘So people were looking in the wrong place for the Nancy, they should have been looking further out.’
The ship sank in 1784 and the first thing the islanders knew about it was when paperwork began washing ashore and onto beaches.
It took seven full days for the storm to subside, but when it did a rescue boat was sent out in the vain hope there may be a survivor clinging to the rocks.
Bodies were found including a woman clutching her dead baby – who rescuers were unaware was Ann Cargill, then aged 24, whose fortune at the time was described as being ‘beyond the dreams of avarice’.
She had caused outrage aged 15 by running off with the playwright Miles Peter Andrews while starring in a production of the Fairy Prince.
She was later ejected from India on the orders of Prime Minister William Pitt The Younger who told Parliament: ‘An actress should not be defiling the pure shores of India’.
Following the crash she was buried in a pauper’s grave and her paperwork sent to London where officials realised who she was and her body was exhumed and reburied in the Scilly capital, St Mary’s.
Official logs in India showed she had been carrying all of her possessions including jewels and gifts from her various scandalous lovers and a £200,000 fortune.
Mr Stevens said the jewels on her body were used to fund a neat memorial although he has not yet managed to locate the grave.
Mr Stevens moved to Scilly a decade ago to pursue his passion for diving and has since discovered a number of shipwrecks.
After being put on the right track by his friend, he was able to locate the Nancy within the first few dives.
Mr Stevens said: ‘It has been a real thrill. This kind of discovery is what you go diving for.
‘We are still searching for the gold and jewels but if we find them we will hand them all over to the Isles of Scilly Museum.’
The wreck was actually found last year, but the two men have only just revealed their discovery because they were keen that the site should not be disturbed.
The pair have now written a book called the The Ghosts Of Rosevear.