25 Jun 2020
For Definitive Productions
After 118 years, the discovery of Chinese goldminers’ remains by the Project Ventnor Group and documentary film-maker Definitive Productions, brings to a close New Zealand’s greatest maritime mystery.
The discovery of the remains inside the SS Ventnor, which lies 21 kilometres off the North Island Coast of New Zealand in the Tasman Sea, and 150 metres down, was made on Friday 22 May 2020.
The Project Ventnor Group and Definitive Productions were filming the wreck for the upcoming documentary “Fallen Leaves”, which refers to the Chinese proverb “falling leaves return to their roots”, when the remains were found. Using Boxfish’s latest underwater ROV (remote controlled underwater cameras) meant filming was able to be done from the surface without divers.
The return home for the miners who lived in New Zealand in the 19th century is now possible.
The SS Ventnor left Westport in October 1902 carrying the bodies of 501 Chinese men, mostly gold miners, back to China, but the ship sank off the Hokianga Heads after striking a reef near Taranaki. Most of the crew made it ashore, but 13, including the captain, drowned.
The Chinese men had been buried in New Zealand and then disinterred from 40 cemeteries and were being sent home so that, according to the Chinese culture, their souls could be tended to by their families. The miners, mostly from the Poon Yu county and some in the Jung Seng county of Guangdong province had paid a dowry to the Chinese New Zealand community group Cheong Sing Tong so they could be returned home to their families when they died. In some cases money was sent from China to help pay the passage home.
In 2012 Project Ventnor chair John Albert, renowned New Zealand underwater explorer Keith Gordon and former NZ Dive magazine editor Dave Moran along with cameraman Eruera Morgan, went searching for the Ventnor. They were taken by local coastguard and fishing charter operators John and Linda Pattinson to an area the Pattinsons thought could be the resting place of the Ventnor and its ethereal cargo. Using an echo sounder Gordon was able to pin-point a large object on the ocean floor which he believed might be the wreck.
In 2013, a karakia was performed at the site by kaumatua Selwyn Pryor and local identity, Maria Albert-Kaio. A remote operated vehicle was then lowered down to the wreck site. With the footage obtained, Gordon was able to confirm it was the SS Ventnor.
In January 2014, reconnaissance divers from the Project Ventnor Group spent about 25 minutes investigating and filming the wreck. In April 2014, the Group was asked by New Zealand and Chinese officials to retrieve some artefacts from the ship, to prove it was the Ventnor. These artefacts are now at the National Te Papa museum in Wellington. At that stage no evidence of human remains was found.
Albert says it has taken a long time to get to this point for various reasons. Everybody connected with the Project Ventnor Group worked without remuneration and their availability was conditional on getting time off work. Weather and sea conditions where the shipwreck lies also vary considerably, hindering the Group’s efforts.
He said he wanted to let families in New Zealand and China who have connections with the SS Ventnor to know the remains of their kin had been discovered, and he would welcome the opportunity to hear from them.
“The Chinese miners had been mistreated, and they died in a foreign country while trying to provide for their families back home. Their skills and hard work helped with not only mining, but also the building of infrastructure like roads, bridges, railway lines, as well as market gardening in New Zealand,” says Albert.
“In the documentary The Lost Voyage of 499, people spoke of their desire to find and return their ancestor, and other goldminers, to their homeland. I hope the discovery will help bring closure for all concerned.
“I cannot explain it. Call it a spiritual, cultural and humanitarian pull if you like, but after hearing about the sad fate of the miners, and their desire to return home I have felt a need to help them complete their journey.
“Just as we Māori have lobbied for the return of our kōiwi from museums and collectors from around the world, I feel an obligation to show the miners, our early settlers, the same respect and gratitude for their major contribution to our early history.”
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