The Project Ventnor Group and documentary film-maker Definitive Productions have brought one of New Zealand's great maritime mystery to a close, after 118 years, with the discovery of Chinese goldminers' remains inside what is left of the SS Ventnor, 150 metres below the surface off the Hokianga Harbour heads.
The Project Ventnor Group and Definitive Productions were filming the wreck, using Boxfish's latest underwater ROV (remote-controlled underwater cameras), for the upcoming documentary 'Fallen Leaves,' which refers to the Chinese proverb regarding falling leaves returning to their roots, when the remains were found on May 22.
It would now be possible to return the remains of the miners, who died in New Zealand in the early 20th Century, to their homeland.
The SS Ventnor left Westport in October 1902, carrying the bodies of 501 Chinese men, most of them gold miners, back to China, but sank off the Hokianga Heads after striking a reef off Taranaki. Most of the crew made it ashore, but 13, including the captain, drowned.
The Chinese, who had been buried in in 40 cemeteries in New Zealand, had been disinterred to be sent home so that, according to 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 their passage home.
Bones that washed ashore were gathered by Māori and buried alongside their own dead. According to oral tradition, many were interred in the Rāwene cemetery.
In 2012, Project Ventnor chairman 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 that they thought could be the resting place of the ship and its ethereal cargo.
Using an echo sounder, Gordon was able to pin-point a large object on the Tasman Sea floor, which he believed might be the wreck.
In 2013 karakia were offered at the site by kaumātua Selwyn Pryor and Maria Albert-Kaio before a remote-operated vehicle was lowered down to the site, images confirming that the SS Ventnor had been found.
In January 2014, reconnaissance divers from the Project Ventnor Group spent about 25 minutes investigating and filming the wreck. Three months later they retrieved some artefacts to prove the wreck was that of the Ventnor. Those artefacts are now at the National Te Papa museum in Wellington. At that stage no evidence of human remains was found.
Albert said it had taken nine long years, much of that time spent working in dangerous and unforgiving conditions, to get to that point. Everybody connected with the Project Ventnor Group had worked without remuneration, their availability being conditional on getting time off work. Weather and sea conditions where the shipwreck lay also varied considerably, hindering the Group's efforts.
He had since met families of the miners, both in New Zealand and in Poon Yu, but there were many thousands more yet to find. He was anxious to let those descendants know that the remains of their kin had been found, however, and would welcome the opportunity to hear from them.
"The Chinese goldminers had been mistreated, and they died in a foreign country while trying to provide for their families back home," he said.
"Their skills and hard work helped not only with mining, but also the building of infrastructure like roads, bridges, railway lines, as well as market gardening in New Zealand. They are our early pioneers.
"In the documentary 'The Lost Voyage of 499,' people spoke of their desire to find and return their ancestors, and other goldminers, to their homeland. I hope the discovery will help bring closure for all concerned.
"I cannot explain it," he added.
"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. Lucky for me, within the Project Ventnor Group we have some of the most driven, courageous, risk-taking and caring people on the planet.
"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 goldminers, our early settlers, the same respect and gratitude for their major contribution to our early history."