Ghost ship of the Hokianga
In 1902, the steamship Ventnor was carrying the bones of 499 Chinese gold miners from New Zealand to southern China when it sank off the coast of Northland. For more than a century, no one knew where the ship lay. Its discovery seven years ago kindled questions and disputes that blazed into controversy earlier this year. Who decides what happens to a wreck on the bottom of the sea? And what’s the rightful resting place of men who never made it home?
Depending on your luck as a Chinese sojourner on the goldfields of Otago and Hokitika, you returned to your village and family in one of two ways. Either you bought a ticket to Hong Kong for £16. 10s. 6d. and went home on a steamer, wearing a bowler hat and a smart vest, or you paid £3 in advance and went in a box, wrapped in calico. But the point was—in the flesh or as exhumed bones—you went home.
In 19th-century gold-rush territories of the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Chinese benevolent societies made a point of setting to rights the calamity of death in foreign lands. Paying an annual subscription to one of these societies guaranteed your welcome into the communal safety of the local joss house, and your ticket home. To your village, where tradition ruled. To the allotted period of reverence, to the annual cleaning of your grave at Ching Ming, with its respectful bowing, food and incense, then to a gradual merging into an honoured ancestry. Not to return was a disaster for your family. Not to return was a personal disaster, too, as you would wander, untethered, an unsettled ghost.
To scale up exhumations and make them economically viable, collection and transportation of the dead took place at decades-long intervals. The first repatriation of bones from New Zealand was overseen in 1883 by Otago’s Cheong Shing Tong society, which loaded the remains of 286 people onto the steamer Hoihow.
The next shipment was scheduled for 1902, and preparations began three years in advance, when the Cheong Shing Tong sent a request to the Colonial Secretary of New Zealand to exhume close to 500 bodies. It was a huge task that would measure the scale, rigour and organisation of New Zealand’s Chinese population. Dunedin merchant and Cheong Shing Tong president Choie Sew Hoy led the effort and, as the remains arrived, provided a large shed five kilometres outside of Dunedin, where cheerful workers undertook a second cycle of cleaning the bones, bagging them in calico, enclosing them in zinc boxes and fixing an outer jacket of wood.
In July 1901, a heart attack felled Choie. His son Kum Poy took over as president of the Cheong Shing Tong and overseer of the mass repatriation. Choie, meanwhile, was conventionally buried. He lay in the earth in Dunedin for about a year before his remains, too, were exhumed, cleaned and prepared for passage within a rimu coffin.
The SS Ventnor loaded 5300 tons of Westport coal before steaming north to Wellington, where it picked up the boxes and coffins and departed again on Sunday, October 26, 1902. Just past midnight, it struck a reef off Taranaki. Although it backed off, the ship was taking on water at the bow. Captain Henry Ferry, confident the pumps and watertight bulkheads could handle the ingress, steamed north to loop around Cape Reinga for drydocking and repair in Auckland. But the Ventnor made only 224 nautical miles before the bow pulled it down. Around 9.40pm on October 28, the ship foundered in 80 fathoms of water, eight nautical miles off the Hokianga Heads. Three of the lifeboats rowed clear, but the last boat lowered off the Ventnor was swamped in the turmoil of the ship’s final moments, and Captain Ferry, seven of the crew and five of the Chinese repatriation attendants drowned.
Amidst consternation in the Chinese communities of Dunedin, Greymouth and Wellington—the three main collection points for remains—a grieving Kum Poy hired the coastal steamer Energy for a £600, six-week search for flotsam off the Hokianga Heads. Nothing was found.
Yet the Ventnor did give up some of its cargo to the sea. In the months that followed, Te Rarawa Māori at Mitimiti, north of the Hokianga Harbour, found calico bags containing human bones washed up on their beaches. The bones were sent on the cream run across to the Rawene police station, and reputedly buried in the town cemetery. South of the Hokianga Harbour, a small flotilla of boxes came ashore in the rohe (area) of Te Roroa. The boxes landed on several widely separated beaches, and were buried with due ceremony in at least four sites.
And then, for more than a century, that was the last that was heard of the vanished Ventnor and her cargo.
In 2007, Wong Liu Shueng, a cultural consultant who’d recently moved to Rawene, heard the local stories of bones that had washed up along the coast, and began to ask around. She formed a small research team, which included communications consultant Kirsten Wong and historian Nigel Murphy, and began to unlock the story handed down through generations of Māori. Wong spoke to elders who remembered their tīpuna, kuia mostly, telling them as children, “There’s Chinese over there. Don’t play in there.” Just like it had happened yesterday.
A relationship grew between the Chinese community and Northland Māori. In 2009, the research team was joined by representatives of the Sew Hoy family and the Poon Fah Association (a descendant organisation of the Cheong Shing Tong). The group travelled to Te Rarawa and Te Roroa marae to introduce themselves and thank iwi for their care of the Chinese remains.
The research team also wanted to establish a Chinese mandate over the submerged remains, and approached John Klaricich, a senior Te Roroa kaumātua, to suggest that the Ventnor might be acknowledged by the iwi as a grave site. Klaricich was perhaps the first to give a Māori point of view on whatever kōiwi (bones) still lay within the wreck.
“Well, I’ve got some problems when someone else says we should treat that place in what belongs to our jurisdiction as a grave site,” says Klaricich in a recorded interview from 2014. “I think, when I look at it, there were relatives and descendants of those remains, people whose remains are still out there, who said, ‘We want them repatriated back to their homeland,’ and I think that should guide all of the future action.”
Māori have a phrase that speaks strongly to their belief that remains should go home: Whakahokia atu. The return of kōiwi.
In November 1902, the court of inquiry on the Ventnor ruled that the cause of the sinking was navigational error and incompetence, but the Chinese of the time had a simpler explanation: the spirits had quarrelled.
Chinese culture allows the spirits of the deceased direct agency—and so does Māori culture. As a boy growing up in the north, John Albert heard tales of the spirit ship that lay off the Hokianga. He is Ngāpuhi, and his whakapapa goes back to Rāhiri, one of the most prominent chieftains of the Hokianga, second only to Kupe.
Decades later, managing the Maidstone Lodge in the central Auckland suburb of St Johns—keeping the place running with its mix of tenants, and the communal kitchen that was in itself a big job—John Albert wonders why his thoughts still turn to the Ventnor. He has no underwater experience. Perhaps it’s because his girlfriend is Chinese. Perhaps it’s because of his close friendship with Māori Television’s Eruera Morgan. They’ve talked about making a documentary together, about the ship. But there’s been no agreement beyond that.
And then Albert is called.
Standing on the edge of the Hokianga one day in 2010, looking west over the vast seascape, he feels a coldness enter his body. Later, he’ll be able to put words to the feeling, but what are words? The older parts of human consciousness don’t use them. His grandmother from Te Huia Marae was recognised as a seer. His uncle also has those powers. On South Head that day, the icy chill is so strong that Albert turns to his girlfriend for confirmation of the strangeness, but she didn’t feel anything.
“Oh, I must have been dreaming,” he says. But it changes his life.
Back in Auckland, he sets up meetings with two of New Zealand’s dive royalty: Keith Gordon, a veteran shipwreck research and explorer, and Dave Moran, who worked with Kelly Tarlton to convert the old sewage tanks on the Ōrākei seafront into an aquarium. The two men have decades of experience as underwater explorers, having dived on shipwrecks around the world.
Albert lays out his story, and the vision. He has been chosen, he tells Gordon and Moran, to bring the Ventnor bones home.
The explorers are intrigued—but they know exactly how much it costs to hunt for a shipwreck. If Albert can fund the expedition, they’re in.
That will involve considerable research—and Albert will need to charter a boat.
It’s Linda Pattinson who answers the phone when Albert calls. When he tells her he wants to look for a wreck, she says, “Oh, I know what boat you’ll be looking for.”
She and her husband, Hokianga fisherman John Pattinson, already know where the Ventnor is. The sonar on their nine-metre craft isn’t able to give detail, but it has sketched a long, thin lump on the seabed and, before deciding it was a ship, John simply called it Virgin Rock. The coordinates remain private to him—it’s a useful hotspot for charter trips, since fish congregate around objects on the sea floor. He hooked a grouper out there once that weighed 64.5 kilograms.
Then, the last time he went out, something that looked like a bow rail came up on his anchor, but it slipped away before anyone could grab it. He was so sure it was the wreck that he rang the Maritime Archaeological Association of New Zealand. They said they were interested, but no one ever followed up.
In 2012, John Pattinson takes Albert and Gordon out to investigate the spot, and the trip convinces Gordon, too, that the shape on the ocean bed is the wreck.
In January 2013, the team returns, this time with a camera operator, Eruera Morgan, and Gordon’s remote-operated vehicle (ROV). Eventually, they’ll name themselves the Project Ventnor Group.
The mood is solemn, the team aware they may be floating above human remains. Albert has invited Māori pastor Selwyn Pryor and senior Ngāpuhi kuia Maria Kaio to join them on board, and together, Pryor and Kaio give the karakia (prayer).
Gordon lowers his ROV into the water and sends it down 143 metres to the seabed, where it lands on a pile of spilled coal. There it sits, upright: the wreck. It’s probably the Ventnor, but they’re not yet certain: they’ll need to find an item they can confirm against the ship’s construction records.
Albert alerts police and government to the find, and word of the discovery spreads beyond New Zealand. The ship also carries meaning in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. National Party list MP Jian Yang smooths the way for Albert and Morgan to visit Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong. Four months after the first identification, the two men sweep through the city in a three-car entourage with motorcycle outriders. Albert and Morgan meet the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office and its associated Guangdong Museum of Chinese Nationals Residing Abroad, then travel to Beijing for further talks. China praises the work done so far, and Albert tells them he’ll seek more tangible evidence of the ship’s identity and its contents.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand Chinese Association and two Northland iwi are seeing to ensure the 499 receive are properly laid to rest. In April 2013, Fraser Toi, a senior Te Roroa kaumātua, welcomes a large contingent of Chinese people, mostly descendants of the Ventnor deceased, onto a Te Roroa meeting ground. The large group that has made the pilgrimage includes many Sew Hoy descendants, the Chinese consul-general, and the Ventnor research group: Wong Liu Shueng, Kirsten Wong and Nigel Murphy.
Adjacent ceremonies top off years of respectful contact between two cultures with deep traditions. It takes all day—the mihi, the speeches, and then the dedication of the Ventnor Grove on the fringes of Waipoua Forest. The group travels to the grove to unveil a plaque thanking the iwi for the respect and care shown when the remains washed ashore. It concludes: “May their souls now rest in peace in your rohe.” Then to the beach and out to the wide sea, with Toi conducting the poroporoaki—the farewell to the dead.
“We believe totally in the duality of life, and that the spiritual side in Māori culture is more significant than the physical,” says Toi. “The spirits is the side that can cause havoc in one’s physical life, if they’re not dealt to properly.”
The Chinese follow with their own ceremonies. The grave-sweeping day of Ching Ming usually features bai san—the spread of food, the lighting of incense, the bows of respect before the grave. On the beach, though, the Chinese practise the variant bai jai ceremony—the one you do when there’s no burial site. The smoke of joss sticks drifts across the sea and people’s thoughts turn to those forebears still on the sunken ship.
The following day, the Chinese group crosses the Hokianga for another unveiling ceremony at the red Chinese gate erected in their honour at the Mitimiti urupā.
Two days of contact, reassurance and bonding between two northern iwi and the Chinese.
To the best of everyone’s ability, the spirits of the Ventnor dead have been cared for properly.
The question lingering over the Ventnor is whether the remains are still present within the hold of the sunken ship. Later in 2013, Keith Gordon invites a group of Australian technical divers called the Wet Mules to explore the wreck.
The Wet Mules dive regularly at the Pearse Resurgence near Motueka, the country’s deepest flooded cave system, setting depth records and exploring new channels. Gordon proposes that, on their next visit to New Zealand, they detour north to the Ventnor. Three of the Mules accept the challenge: Sandy Varin, Dave Bardi and Dave Hurst.
In January 2014, the Mules prepare for what will be New Zealand’s deepest-ever wreck dive. Drysuits. A GoPro camera on Varin’s helmet to record footage that may be shown to the Chinese. Rebreathers on their backs—small cylinders that mix the right percentages of oxygen, helium and nitrogen to keep the divers alive and free of narcosis at extreme depth. Large emergency cylinders in case of rebreather malfunction. If anything goes wrong at 143 metres down, there’s no quick return to the surface. Every minute spent at that depth requires 20 minutes of decompression on the way back up. Though the three divers will be gone for more than six hours, only 20 minutes of that time will be spent on the wreck.
They leave the dive boat, start their electric scooters and follow the shot line down.
“It’s special because no one has been there,” says Varin later, “so you don’t know what to expect. It’s special. Slightly scary. Not the wreck itself, but because you’re down so far.”
Bardi describes following the shot line down into the deep. It gets darker and darker. All of a sudden, the wreck looms out of the pitch black, and the divers start to make out details. The ship is standing upright and, as they swim its length, they note that the iron hull remains mostly intact.
They swim back to the strobe light they’ve fixed to the distant shot line; it blinks through the gloom, the brightest of strobes. To lose the line in this blackness would be to doom yourself to an unsettled wander through a dark, alien world. Going back up again takes hours, in a succession of decompression stops. The sun has set when they surface.
The next day, Jian Yang and a Chinese man arrive by chopper. They come onto the boat and want to talk about the dive. They look at all the equipment, shake hands with the divers, then are gone again.
Talking about the dive with New Zealand Geographic, the two divers agree the wreck had a special aura. “It did feel eerie,” says Bardi.
“A wreck that you know has got bodies on it has got a different feel to it,” says Varin. “You kind of don’t want to disturb anyone down there, but you’re also curious as to where they are.
“You almost have the feeling you want to be careful not to go into a dark little hole because one of them might grab you. They might like you—and just might ask you questions about what’s going on up there.”
A couple of months later, in April 2014, two other Wet Mules, Richard Harris and Craig Challen, dive on the wreck.
The divers bring the Ventnor’s engine order telegraph to the surface. They also recover a plate, a lamp-holder and a small bell.
The divers are within their rights to uplift parts of the ship—salvaging items is typical practice when identifying wrecks, and the Ventnor isn’t a protected site.
“There was nothing covert about it,” says Bill Edwards, the Northland area manager of Heritage New Zealand. “You had divers bringing up some artefacts, and that created a new situation. Because until then the wreck had been protected by depth and its remote location.”
Divers onto any pre-1900 shipwreck can’t disturb the wreck without Heritage New Zealand’s permission, but since the Ventnor sank in 1902 it doesn’t qualify for protection. (During one Project Ventnor Group dive, the wreck’s identity is finally confirmed by the sighting of a patented rudder design that fits the Ventnor’s 1901 construction records.)
Edwards moves quickly to designate the wreck an archaeological site—the only post-1900 wreck in the country to receive this status. It means divers can visit, but artefacts can’t be removed without an archaeological authority, which involves consultation with interested parties.
In an analysis for New Zealand Geographic, Edwards later writes that the vessel is neither a legally designated grave site nor a registered wāhi tapu. But since the Ventnor was being used as a coffin ship, holding remains of people who’d undergone funerary and cultural rites, the shipwreck should be treated with appropriate care and respect.
The removal of artefacts from the wreck, however, earns the Project Ventnor Group the odium of the Chinese Association. A letter from the association’s then-president, Virginia Chong, to Heritage New Zealand calls the group “opportunists”, while Wong Liu Sheung writes that the group has “plundered” the wreck.
Eminent Chinese historian James Ng adds to the criticism: “To have the last resting place of these men disrespectfully pillaged, possibly for commercial display, is wrong and deeply distressing,” he writes to Heritage New Zealand.
Rumours of looting begin to fly. Someone at Dave Moran’s gym asks him what he’s up to and accuses him of bringing up skulls and selling them to the Chinese.
“We respected what the Chinese were saying,” Gordon later tells New Zealand Geographic, “but at the same time, they put a lot of misinformation out there. They were trying to paint us as bad buggers.”
By this point, the Ventnor is under the tidal pull of high-level statecraft.
The President of China, Xi Jinping, is due to visit New Zealand in November 2014, and that same month a Ventnor documentary—a co-production between China Central Television and NHNZ—screens on Māori Television. The Last Voyage of the 499 follows father and son Duncan Sew Hoy and Peter Sew Hoy, descendants of Choie, from their home in Dunedin to the commemorations with Māori last April. The two are then filmed making an emotional journey to Choie Sew Hoy’s family home in the village of Sha Jong in Guangdong. The documentary ends with Duncan’s greatest wish: to stand on the banks of the Pearl River, dressed in white, with 5000 extended family members from around the world, welcoming the remains of Choie Sew Hoy back to the land of his birth. Laying him to rest, forever.
John Klaricich and others propose a presidential visit to Ventnor sites in the north, but that doesn’t make the official schedule. Instead, on the day of President Xi’s arrival in New Zealand, John Albert decides to raise the profile of the Ventnor with a press conference.
He displays some of the Ventnor artefacts for the first time, and tells the ship’s story. Framed by its telegraph on one side and a brass porthole on the other, Albert describes the Māori attitude to the remains of tangata whenua held in museums around the world—that they should be returned to New Zealand. Māori and Chinese beliefs on kōiwi are similar, he claims: the Ventnor bones should go home.
Then Jian Yang speaks, recalling a Chinese saying that fallen leaves return to their roots: “So it is very important for these people to be returned to China.”
Albert arranges the press conference for the president’s downtime, figuring international media will be at a loose end during that gap in Xi’s schedule. It works: China Central Television turns up and later broadcasts a three-minute clip outlining the Ventnor story.
“It’s as simple as this,” Albert later tells New Zealand Geographic. “If you don’t have money, if you don’t have influence and you don’t have connections, you’ve got to find a way of getting around these things.”
But for the research team formed back in 2007, the press conference and the publicity that follows are irreverent, and they’re not alone. “All of a sudden we got bombarded by our community,” says Kirsten Wong. “We got the strong feeling that more people than just us were angry and upset about the intrusion onto the wreck.”
But in August 2015, the newly elected president of the Chinese Association, Meng Foon, meets with Albert’s Project Ventnor Group. In Foon’s written summary of the meeting, he praises the group’s work. He supports the group’s wish to unite the Chinese Association, Ventnor families, iwi and also the New Zealand, Guangdong and Chinese governments in a commemoration of the story. As to the remarks from some Chinese Association members that have blackened the names of the Project Ventnor Group—those are, writes Foon, “unfortunate”.
Foon makes it clear his views are his own, but adds that he supports recovering more artefacts, as these would now be protected by Heritage New Zealand. He endorses the return of the kōiwi: “It was a journey they desperately wanted to make, and it is our responsibility as Chinese to ensure, if at all possible, that their wishes are fulfilled and that their journey home is completed.”
Foon writes that he will suggest to the Chinese Association that it thank John Albert and the Project Ventnor Group in writing for their efforts, and take up Albert’s offer to work together. (Albert hears nothing further.)
Today, the report stands as a historical oddity amid sustained Chinese Association opposition to the Project Ventnor Group. Foon’s attitude has reversed. He stresses to New Zealand Geographic that now, he does not speak as an individual, but with the collective voice of the Chinese Association’s Ventnor Committee. As chairperson of that committee, he scolds the Project Ventnor Group: “We say it’s like somebody going into one of the council graves… and says, ‘I think it might make a story,’ you know. ‘I can see some stuff,’ you know. ‘I reckon I might take some of those.’ ‘That cross looks nice.’ So you can put yourself into the shoes of that, that’s how annoyed we are.”
The association’s current president, Richard Leung, too, says any remains within the Ventnor should rest in peace. The whole ship is, in effect, a cemetery.
“It’s a respect thing. There’s remains of people down there. The community has said it wants people to respect that, and not to disturb or to go down there any more.”
Leung says 90 per cent of the Chinese Association’s membership is fifth-, sixth- or seventh-generation Chinese, and many of them descend from people who arrived in New Zealand long before the Ventnor’s time. The association’s community, says Leung, by inclination and by rights of descent, is the natural spiritual guardian of the Ventnor.
Meanwhile, consensus is emerging between the Project Ventnor Group diving specialists: the bones are gone.
Deep-sea technical divers have scouted the wreck nine times. The ROVs have done two dives. None of the visits has registered either coffins, boxes, or bones. They must have been scattered, perhaps ripped from the ship’s hull by trawlers.
But John Albert doesn’t agree, and never has. He feels he’s been called for a purpose, and that purpose is to return the remains.
Even the names of the 499 Chinese returnees on the Ventnor have been lost. The Cheong Shing Tong did record their names and their home villages, and that record is believed to have been made in Kum Poy’s black notebook—the one he held, as shown in a photograph, on the Port Chalmers wharf in 1902 while the boxed remains of hundreds of Chinese were loaded on the coastal steamer Rimu for passage to Wellington.
In 2014, Wong Liu Shueng’s research group had tried the National Archives as a possible alternative source, but that search came up dry. Now, in May 2016, Gordon Wu, president of Wellington’s Tung Jung Association, tries again. Between 2014 and 2016, the archives’ catalogue and file descriptions have been updated. Wu finds exhumation requests with Chinese names appended from 39 cemeteries. They are dated between 1899 and 1902—the same years the Cheong Shing Tong and other benevolent societies had begun their programme for repatriation aboard the Ventnor.
Wu’s discovery is a breakthrough that releases yet more energy in pursuit of the Ventnor story. And, as a personal reward for his days of labour, Wu finds one entry that rocks him: the name of his great-grandfather.
The following month, the Chinese Association’s annual general meeting thrills to news of the names, which coincides with another agenda item: a Ventnor Memorial proposal from an architect called Richard Tam, who has recently returned from overseas.
Tam first learned of the Ventnor as an architecture student in Auckland, and the story has stayed with him. He and Wong Liu Sheung have developed the idea of a memorial. Not too expensive. And modest. Concrete and steel—corten steel, with its patina of rust. Tam is halfway through the design process when the Ventnor names are found. He assigns them to one of the memorial’s main panels. The lost souls are also represented by 499 perforations on the graduated panels that sweep to a standing position at the memorial’s end.
The design wins Chinese Association approval, and the association’s members raise $219,000 towards its construction. Rawene cemetery is chosen by consensus as the best site. It seems right. Work has already begun in March 2018 when a storm collapses the foundation trench and a grave slips sideways.
The Chinese Association casts about for another site, and finds one close to Ōmāpere beach, where the Ventnor’s lifeboats reached safety in 1902. That seems right, too. The project is bolstered by a $100,000 grant from the Provincial Growth Fund, and Māori trustees planning a nearby heritage and tourist hub at Opononi called Manea Footprints of Kupe agree to allow the memorial its space close to the beach. (As this issue went to print, construction of the memorial was almost complete.)
“It’s become this thing we all get behind,” says Tam. “The John Albert thing really hurts, so we’re glad we have this memorial.”
Kirsten Wong, the memorial project coordinator, agrees.
“A lot of the reason why the Ventnor story is so heartfelt for us, why we feel so connected to it, is because it makes us reflect on the people that we’ve lost in our families. For a long time the Chinese community has told itself that we’ve done good. We came here and it was hard, and then we made a big success of it. But actually, in every family there are people who it didn’t really work out well for them. And they were kind of lost. For me personally, those bones on the Ventnor represent those lost people. The loss is something we can very readily understand. So when we talk of moving them and taking them somewhere else, for us it doesn’t feel like the right thing, because for us they’re already home, because we’re here and we have made this our home, and because we’re home, they’re home as well. So I think there’s that whole layer of us being New Zealanders and us claiming our ancestors.”
The Boxfish is an outside hire. Bright yellow. Twenty-three kilograms. Just over a metre long. Eight thrusters. One main camera yielding ultra-high-definition video, and two smaller ones to help it navigate in small spaces. An ultra-light fibre-optic cable. Two lights, 8500 lumens each. It was chock-full of New Zealand software and engineering innovation, and one of the most advanced in its class.
When the Project Ventnor Group check it out at an Ōrākei workshop, Moran and Gordon have in mind only its usefulness for photogrammetry—to provide an accurate model of the ship, both for the new documentary and for posterity. John Albert seems to go along with it.
Then the two-day reconnoitre on the wreck shrinks to one day because the technician driving the Boxfish to Opononi rolls his car.
And then Albert changes his mind. That one day, he insists, will be spent looking for the bones.
That one day, Moran will say afterwards, was uncanny.
The first albatross flies past as John Pattinson is trying to hook his boat onto the wreck. Then a second, gliding around the boat. Beautiful, thinks Moran. Big buggers. Royals—huge. He’s never seen them here before.
Pattinson is struggling to hook the wreck. It’s always difficult—estimating the tides, the current, the boat windage so that the grapnel drags across the seabed and snags the wreck. Today it catches on some iron protrusion, somewhere around the centre of the vessel, Pattinson estimates. It’s hard to do—but suddenly, he’s not happy. He goes around again, the boat sliding against the current, drops it again, drags it a second time and it catches.
The two albatrosses have landed on the water. Watching with their big eyes.
The ROV goes in and follows the line down. Its ultra-high-definition video shows the grapnel, then rises straight up and eases through a hole in the hull. It shines its powerful headlamps on a field of skulls and disarticulated bones. The remains fade away beyond the reach of the light, into the suggestion of a greater population.
Only ten minutes have passed since the ROV hit the water. It lights up the scattered remains for about three minutes. They’ve seen enough.
“This was maybe the bulk of the consignment, I’d think,” says Gordon. “We didn’t explore the area fully, but we could see there was a lot more. We didn’t go spending a long time. We saw the bones, and imaged them, and left.”
The discovery was on a part of the vessel impenetrable to divers—their tanks would not have fitted through the hole. On the long journey back to shore, it seems fitting, anyway, that no diver found them. Just a high-tech robot. An instrumental encounter, devoid of direct human contact.
There’s the slightest of eyerolls when Gordon and Moran recall that day, but they’d both felt it—John Albert’s spirits.
Pattinson simply says, “It was like someone was looking down on us and thinking, ‘Well, these fellas have been out here enough,’ y’know?”
Two days later, Albert calls Meng Foon to report the discovery.
“We’ve found the remains of the gold miners,” he says.
“Okay, good,” says Foon. “In a coffin?”
“No, these ones are just inside the ship, but they’re lying on the deck, not actually in coffins or anything like that.”
“North or south of Hokianga?”
“When you go out of the Hokianga, it’s about ten miles out to sea,” says Albert.
Foon doesn’t analyse the find further. Albert also calls Richard Leung, and has a similar conversation. Later, both Foon and Leung tell New Zealand Geographic in separate interviews that Albert described finding the bones “on the beach”, and express frustration at being lied to. Foon will add: “He’s deceptive.”
Yet, at the encouragement of his girlfriend, Albert has recorded both phone calls. Albert does not describe the remains as being on the beach. He explains to both men that they are inside the ship.
It’s not clear how Foon and Leung have arrived at exactly the same misunderstanding. A bad phone line—or merely a coincidence?
The phone calls, strained in their pleasantries, and marked by a lack of curiosity on the part of both men about Albert’s news, typifies the frigid relationship that has developed between the two main groups in the Ventnor saga.
It’s tempting to say the spirits of the Ventnor are still shaping their own destiny, intent on keeping the two parties far apart.
For the Chinese Association, the find may change the discussion around the Ventnor. As this issue goes to print, three months after the discovery of the bones, Leung says its members are still discussing what happens next. “We’re led by our community,” he says. “People have to get their heads around it. You can’t just make snap decisions. There’s consequences.”
Foon agrees there’s been a change. “It’s been elevated. It’s been accelerated. So we do need to discuss it, and we don’t know what the answer is. But we’re in no hurry. We’re concentrating on our memorial at the moment.”
John Albert, meantime, presses ahead. He’s been consulting with a production company in Guangzhou to get his Ventnor documentary, Fallen Leaves, to air in China next March.
He’s hoping also to meet families in the Poon Yue district of Guangdong, from which many of the gold miners came. He’s looking for records of 19th-century fathers or sons who may have journeyed to New Zealand and were being returned to China on the Ventnor. Names that can be checked against the exhumation lists.
Not all descendants of the sojourners are in New Zealand, and the Poon Yue families in China may have a different opinion about whether their ancestors should return.
The direct New Zealand lines of descent to the Ventnor remains are the Sew Hoy and the Wu families—large groups connected to just two coffins. Those with links to the Chinese benevolent societies of old New Zealand also claim descendant status—the Sew Hoy and Wu families again, and the Shum family. Then there’s kinship. The Chinese Association comprises mostly Chinese who arrived during the poll tax period of 1881 to 1934, a community of people connected to other families by marriage. Many have ancestors who, though not related to anyone aboard the Ventnor, may have been contemporaneous with the lost miners or known someone who was.
Albert knows that the sleeping giant in the whole Ventnor story is the hundreds of Poon Yue families who far outnumber the direct descendants within the Chinese Association.
After he met up with the Pattinsons, Albert had a second vision on South Head. A strobing sun. A flickering line of light across the water, which followed the correct bearing from Hokianga Heads to the wreck. A bird that hovered in front of that same light, tittering on and on, incessant. Mist moving on a hill somewhere.
And things keep rolling forward, falling into place. The right people with the right skills and the right contacts show up at the right time. Keith Gordon and Dave Moran. John and Linda Pattinson, both top people within Hokianga coastguard. The Wet Mules. All of them straight-up people, and all of them on board with Albert’s guiding principles: spirituality, cultural respect, historical accuracy and aroha.
“I made it clear from day one I wanted to find the remains and help them to go home,” says Albert. “Because that’s what I genuinely believed then, and I still do to this day. Every time I doubt myself, I always think of two things. One is if they didn’t want me to help them to go home, they wouldn’t have let me find them. That’s just my spiritual feeling. And my second one is if they didn’t want me to be helping them, why did they come to me in the first place?”
The Ventnor story fans out, like the memorial itself, at many graduated levels. From the spiritual to the practical and the diplomatic.
As to the five objects taken from the wreck in 2014, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has reached a cautious preliminary determination that the Crown will hold them on behalf of their true owners—if owners can be identified—and will assume custody in the meantime.
The Chinese Association continues to criticise the Project Ventnor Group for what it sees as intrusions on a sacred site. Others, including Heritage New Zealand’s Bill Edwards, say the group has significantly advanced the story of the Chinese in New Zealand. The Project Ventnor Group’s position is that the remains should go home, if the families, iwi and governments agree; the Chinese Association counters that the gold miners have already reached a final resting place.
The only thing the two groups have in common is their respect for the remains themselves. When talk turns to the bones, both sides speak a little more softly, as if the dead world of the past was taking pains to listen.
And finally, there’s the mystery of John Albert’s funding. It includes some contributions from Sew Hoy sources, but other than that, he won’t say. The amounts spent so far total something over $150,000, although valued in terms of services rendered, calculates Albert, it’d be four times that amount.
“I wouldn’t have a clue who funds him,” says Leung. “There’s all sorts of Chinese money floating around in the New Zealand economy.”
“Oh yeah,” says Meng Foon, finally, “there’s skulduggery all over the Ventnor. We’re just saying whatever happens, we’ll lobby our hardest to the government. They’re the legal custodians. We’re the spiritual custodians, the ancestral custodians, and we’ll hold our line. And the government is more likely to listen to us than other people.”