A historic pirate ship containing a legendary bounty of sunken treasure is thought to have been discovered by divers in Tonga.

The wreck of the Port-au-Prince, a 200-year-old English ship of war, is believed to have been found off the coast of Foa Island, in the Ha'apai Island group.

It sailed into Pacific water in search of whales in 1806 after straying from its main mission of ambushing and capturing treasure from the ships of British enemies.

Upon finding the Port-au-Prince in Tongan waters, chief Finau Ulukalala and his people seized the ship and massacred most of the crew.


Local legend says Ulukalala then scuttled the vessel with nearly all its bounty still on board.

Sandra Fifita, a tourism marketing officer in the Tongan Government, says the discovery of the wreck may spark a fervent treasure hunt.

"If it proves to be the Port-au-Prince then we may have treasure hunters and Tongan locals clambering to find the remains of years of successful pirate raids against the enemies of the British.

"Legend tells that the Chief salvaged the iron, which was of great value in Tonga at the time, and then sunk the ship and all her bounty. It is believed that a considerable amount of copper, silver and gold is resting with the wreck, along with a number of silver candlesticks, incense pans, crucifixes and chalices."

The arrival and eventual demise of the Port-au-Prince also resulted in one of the most valuable documentations of pre-Christian life in the Pacific Islands.

Chief Ulukalala took William Mariner; a young deck-hand on the Port-au-Prince, to live with him and his people for four years after the massacre.

On returning to England, Marriner wrote a detailed account of his experience.

"This is a significant find for the people of Tonga. This ship wreck will reveal a great deal of information about the history of Tonga and specifically the Ha'apai Islands," Fifita says.

The ship wreck was discovered by local diver Tevita Moala.

Greenwich Maritime Museum and the Marine Archaeological Society confirmed the age of the wreck after analysing copper sheathing found at the site.

The sheathing was only used between 1780 and 1850 to combat shipworm and marine weeds.