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Historic pirate ship found in Tonga

Media Release
9 August 2012

Historic pirate ship found in Tonga

Aerial View. Photo: Tonga Visitors' Bureau

The people of Foa Island, a member of the Ha’apai Island group in the Kingdom of Tonga, are celebrating the discovery of a 200-year-old ship wreck found by a local diver and believed to be the legendary Port-au-Prince. The Port-au-Prince was an English ship of war, sailing through Tongan waters in 1806 in search of whales. She was seized by Chief Fīnau Ulukālala of Ha'apai and his people, who killed most of the crew, and, according to locals, left treasure aboard to sink with the ship.

“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,” says Sandra Fifita, Tourism Marketing Officer from the Ministry of Commerce and Tourism.

The arrival of the Port-au-Prince in 1806 resulted in one of the most valuable historical documents of pre-Christian life in the Pacific Islands. William Mariner; a young deck-hand on the Port-au-Prince, was taken by Chief Fīnau Ulukālala to live with him and his people for four years. On returning to England, he wrote a detailed account of his experience.

“The ship wreck is also an exciting opportunity for diving in Tonga. 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.

Diver With Camera. Photo: Tonga Visitors' Bureau

“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,” says Fifita.

The ship wreck was discovered by Tevita Moala who has always kept an eye out for the ship when diving in the area. Local diving expert Darren Rice from Matafonua Lodge Resort has since contacted the Greenwich Maritime Museum and Marine Archaeological Society which has confirmed the age of the wreck due to copper sheathing found at the site. Copper sheathing was only used between 1780 and 1850 to combat shipworm and marine weeds. Local divers will now map out the area for diving and record the data to send to Greenwich Maritime Museum and Marine Archaeological Society.

“The Kingdom of Tonga is a stunning destination for international travellers, especially those keen on a unique diving experience. With 176 islands offering pristine waters and coral reefs rich with an abundance of marine life, visitors can enjoy exploring underwater cliffs, volcanic tunnels and wrecked ships full of history and folklore,” concludes Fifita.


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