TAMAR
HMS Tamar in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor. Hong Kong Maritime Museum

The Buried Remains of This British Shipwreck Still Haunt Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor

For almost three quarters of a century, the rusty remains of HMS Tamar slept soundly on the floor of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor, as ferries and freighters went about their business overhead. The sunken wreckage of this disused British troopship, built in 1863 and scuttled in 1941, bothered no one — and no one bothered her.

But in 2014, land reclamation on the shores of one of the world’s most expensive and densely populated cities put Hong Kong’s future on a collision course with its past, renewing a debate in some circles about how to reconcile the city’s evolving modern identity with its colonial history. While dredging a path for a submerged six-lane bypass skirting the island’s northern shore, workers struck a 131-foot-long chunk of metal buried in the seabed. Now no one knows what to do with it.

“Everyone knew what it was,” Steven Gallagher, a heritage law expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), tells TIME, recalling the odd discovery. Municipal authorities — facing impassioned but often futile resistance to development projects from a community whose interest in conservation swells in proportion to the number of noteworthy buildings that are razed — has tried to keep the find low profile, and has avoided admitting that it could be historically significant. Nonetheless, Gallagher says, “all the historians I spoke to said it was the Tamar.”

The name Tamar today has multiple meanings in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China that, until 1997, was a British possession. To many locals, it is a nickname for the regional government, which is seated atop a neighborhood of the same name (similar to how “Downing Street” is used in the U.K.). Hong Kong’s legislative headquarters overlook Tamar Park, an elevated urban greenway where the ship’s eponymous shore station once was. This lawn, and it's adjacent square were the places where, also in 2014, a few hundred students gathered for protests that grew into the movement now called the Umbrella Revolution. Yet the Tamar, HMS Tamar, from which all of these emotionally loaded names have sprung, has largely been forgotten.

Photographs of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
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Named after a river in southwest England, Tamar was dispatched to Hong Kong in 1897 to serve as a supply ship after years of battle off the coast of South Africa. Quickly becoming obsolete amid turn-of-the-century technologies, she would ultimately find her retirement home in Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour. Her time was up on Dec. 18, 1941, when the order was given to destroy all ships that could be commandeered by the fast-approaching Japanese Imperialists who were about to invade — but Tamar would not go down without a fight.

British sailors tried to torpedo her, but they missed. Then they went after her with explosives. She started to slump but her awning, full of trapped air, kept her gasping at the surface. Artillery fire was called in to finish the job, and finally, after a lengthy struggle, she fell to the watery floor and disappeared for decades. The city’s eventual expansion blanketed the wreckage with silt; when the remains were discovered in 2014, much of the ship’s body was 21 feet underground. It has since been dragged to a new resting place nearby, away from the path of the new underwater freeway.

While there is plenty of appetite for preservation among academics and a culturally inquisitive public, the Hong Kong government seems content to leave the relic well enough alone. According to Stephen Davies, a maritime historian and adjunct professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), “the Hong Kong government does not want colonial period ‘antiquities’.” In 1997, Hong Kong was “handed over” from Britain to China, while retaining, for 50 years, a high degree of political and administrative autonomy under an agreement called “one country, two systems.”

Beijing, seeking to expand its influence over the financially important hub before the deal’s 2047 expiration, has become increasingly involved in the region’s affairs, stirring talk of independence among some Hong Kongers, who frequently fly the colonial flag during rallies and protests. Amid these pressures, and as has happened in some other former colonies, the Hong Kong establishment are keen to leave the past behind.

Read more: How Untrained Canadian Troops Fought and Died in the Defense of Hong Kong

Nor is Tamar of interest to the British. Archaeological finds such as Royal Navy shipwrecks are often jointly preserved out of a sense of “shared heritage,” says Gallagher, of CUHK. But the Battle of Hong Kong, which saw a crown colony lost to invaders for the first time, is far from a great British victory. “I think it would be embarrassing for the British, too,” Gallagher says of resurrecting the ship. “It’s just embarrassing for everyone.”

Moreover, if Tamar’s dramatic sinking symbolized the decline of British Imperialism in the Far East, it’s hard to imagine that China would be supportive of digging it back up and turning it into a monument. That apathy extends to Hong Kong’s current government, stacked as it is with Beijing loyalists. Experts are doubtful that Tamar will ever be properly memorialized. That's a pity. If “intelligently unpacked,” says Davies of HKU, the Tamar could “help explain Hong Kong to itself.”

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