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.
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.
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.”