Shipwreck of SS Ventnor and its dead finally found

ILL-FATED TRIP: The SS Ventnor leaves Westport in 1902.
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ILL-FATED TRIP: The SS Ventnor leaves Westport in 1902.

It has been 112 years since the ill-fated SS Ventnor left New Zealand shores carrying the bodies of 499 Chinese miners who died here and couldn't afford the passage home.

The gold miners had been buried in New Zealand then disinterred and sent home so that, according to Chinese culture, their souls could be tended to by their families and they could finally be at peace. Chinese community members had pooled their money to send the remains home but tragically, the men never arrived.

Today, Maori and Chinese community leaders announced that the ship's wreckage has finally been recovered and efforts are being made to bring closure to the families of those lost at sea.

SHIPWRECK SURVIVOR: A man known as ‘China’, one of the survivors of the SS Ventnor, which wrecked off the coast of ...

SHIPWRECK SURVIVOR: A man known as ‘China’, one of the survivors of the SS Ventnor, which wrecked off the coast of Hokianga in 1902.

The SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga Heads after striking a reef near the coast of Taranaki in October 1902.

Officially 13 crewmen died in the shipwreck and local iwi on the coast buried the bones which washed up.

This is the first time artefacts and footage from the wreck have been shown publicly.

Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis and MP Jian Yang spoke at the conference as did the chairman of the Ventnor Project Group John Albert and vice president of the New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group Keith Gordon.

Yang said there was a saying in China that fallen leaves return to their roots. "So it is very important for these people to be returned to China."

The great great grand-daughter of one of the miners Angela Sew Hoy said it would be "just amazing" to be able to pay the respect to the dead men that they deserved. "For me it's about my children's heritage as well and it would be nice to see him make the trip home."

The ship was only built a year before it sank so it didn't last long, Gordon said. "The wreck is in a state of deterioration and in a few years there won't be much there."

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In 2012, Albert and Gordon studied the wreck using an echo sounder. Last year, the group travelled to the site and deployed a remote operated vehicle onto the wreck. 

With the footage obtained Gordon was able to confirm that the wreck was that of the lost ship.

Since May last year meetings between the Ventnor Project Group, National MP Jian Yang and officials in China's Guangdong province (the lost miners' home region) have taken place and Yang has been in touch with Chinese officials about the development of the project.

Efforts were made to keep the project quiet but with leaked details beginning to emerge, it was decided to make the announcement today.

Albert said the secrecy was needed so government officials could focus on the process.

In January, the first divers dived the 147m deep wreck spending about 25 minuted investigating and filming the wreck remains. This was repeated in April and some artefacts were recovered.

These, including plates, a porthole window and a bell, will be given to the Chinese government.

No evidence of human remains have been found yet but Gordon said there was a lot more of the wreck to explore.

Though the wreck was not listed by Heritage New Zealand at that time, it has since been classified as an archaelogical site and no more activity can be undertaken to modify or destroy the site unless authorised.

Depending on funding, the Ventnor Project Group hopes to complete its mission by the end of March, with the aim of giving closure to the families of the 512 souls aboard the boat. 

The finding is said to highlight the significant ties between China and New Zealand.

 - Stuff

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