Pre-Cook shipwreck challenges history

21:56, Sep 04 2012
Don Elliot
MAKING HISTORY: Dargaville Museum president Don Elliot has reason to be excited – a new discovery means the Dargaville museum may hold remains of the oldest known shipwreck in New Zealand.

A new discovery about a sunken shipwreck in the ferocious Kaipara Harbour graveyard might rewrite New Zealand's history books.

At Dargaville Museum's annual meeting, dendrochronologist Jonathan Palmer revealed the preliminary results of a paper he has been working on for more than three years, which suggests New Zealand's oldest shipwreck is no longer a sealing supplies vessel called the Endeavour, which sunk in 1795, but is a ship buried off the Pouto coastline in 1705.

The paper has been submitted to the Royal Society of New Zealand and will hopefully be published in one month. Shipwreck finder Noel Hilliam had developed a theory that the ship Cecillia Maria had travelled down from Portugal, stopped in Indonesia for repairs and made it to New Zealand where it was claimed by the unforgiving west coast.

recovered treasure
RECOVERED TREASURE: From front: Al Wilcox, Ian McEwan, Noel Hilliam and Ron Halliday retrieve a piece of lagerstroemia timber from Midge Bay, 1982, a part of the wrecked ship.

With a piece of the wreck stored at his house, Hilliam teamed up with Palmer and various other professionals from universities in New Zealand and Australia to carbon date the timber samples.

When the team discovered that more of the remains had been stored at the museum since 1982 things sped up quickly, Palmer says.

The teak and tropical lagerstroemia wood samples from the ship have been carbon tested by Waikato Radiocarbon Dating laboratory director Alan Hogg at least five times.


The wood itself is about 300 years old, Palmer says.

And after taking into account the age of the sap wood, the heart wood, time for curing, building and sailing they estimate the boat sank in 1705.

A historic shipwreck is nothing new to the treacherous Kaipara Harbour entrance, known as the "graveyard" because more than 100 vessels have been claimed by the sandbars.

Palmer's story throws out Hilliam's estimated date but proves the majority of his original theory.

"The story still has a few loose ends, it's impossible to tell whether a boat carried passengers based on a piece of wood, and we can't discount the theory that it was wrecked and driven up into the beach," Palmer says.

If the paper is published, Palmer says it will spark a lot of interest and will be a drawcard for the museum.

"Although it does not change the fact that Abel Tasman discovered the country in 1650, it does suggest someone was here between him and Captain Cook, (1769) which is pretty intriguing."

Palmer says the Dargaville Museum deserves credit for the effort it has put into storing the remains.

"We wanted them to feel proud for having gone to the trouble of meticulously storing a piece of wood out the back because 999 out of 1000 people would think it's a waste of time but now it could be a key piece that might provide history," he says.

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