Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bluetreasure Shipwreck report - the shallow wreck - the Ofa schooner

Back in May I joined with a marine archaeological expedition led by the venerable oceanic explorer Don McIntyre this year - the aim was to search for the ancient ship wrecks sunk in Tonga.

I'm trained as a scuba diver and historian. I love studying history. I love antiques. And I love shipwrecks. Its like a mystery - a giant jigsaw puzzle. You never know what you may find. That's why I joined.

We spent a lot of time in harbor though and while we were there I did some research looking through the newspaper archives, and reading the old journals written by missionaries. Its a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. I guess that would be easy if you had a working metal detector haha.

You can glean some information here and there and piece together names of the shipwrecks. A petty journal written by a church pastor can reveal a  story about a marooned sailor which later reveals the name of an ancient ship that was sunk before they all arrived. Go to A and A leads to B and so forth til you reach Z. :)

Sometimes the search reveals poignant stories like the one of the cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier who was shipwrecked in Papua New Guinea. 

Pelletier was the cabin boy of the St.Paul, a French ship carrying 327 Chinese gold-seekers from Hong Kong to Sydney. The ship hit a reef near Rossel Island on the eastern tip of the Louisade Archipelago in 30 September 1858. Everyone made it safely ashore. The captain and nine white crew left in a boat and after a journey of some 1000 km reached Australia. They left behind the ship’s twelve year old boy Narcisse Pierre Pelletier who had wandered off alone, and was found and cared for by aborigines. Over a decade later, in 1875 he was ‘rescued’ by force in 1875 by Captain Fraser of the brig John Bell, and taken to  Somerset on Cape York, as a prisoner. Pelletier by now a young man of 30 had no wish to leave his adopted people, but he was sent back to his native France. No longer regarding himself a Frenchman, he worked his passage back and rejoined his people. Sadly, the Chinese miners, except one, were never found.

or this other news item - the famous "Elizabeth Morley".

The Union, a Snow brig, of 99 tons. Built at Barnstaple, England but registered in New York. The Master was Daniel Wright from Sydney. The ship was wrecked in Fiji, 12 November 1804. Earlier in 1804, it nearly came a more unfortunate end. The ship under Capain John Pendleton, called at Tongatapu which Captain Cook had mistakenly named "The Friendly Islands". The captain and eight crew went ashore and were killed and eaten by the natives. The Tongans were cannibals and would try and lure the crew from passing ships onto shore - where they became the main item for the feast. After killing the 1st group, the Tongans also tried to get onto the ship. But the first mate, Daniel Wright, suspicious of the captain's late return - refused entry. The natives brought out a white woman in a canoe in an effort to entice an invitation to board, but she called out that the boat’s crew had been murdered, and managed to swim to the Union under protection from gunfire from the brig. She was Elizabeth Morley, the sole survivor of the Duke of Portland, lost there in 1802. 

Interesting tales.

One of the shipwrecks that was looked at - known as the shallow wreck - didn't have a name to it. It was probably about 100 years old. There was an iron winch, a rubble heap of ballast stones, iron plating with small iron pipping similar to what you see on old steam engines, and surprisingly wooden planking just a meter under the sand. On the first dive there, I did a cursory search and found the iron pipping and the wooden planking.

This is what it looked like.

The shipwreck however has no name.

I did the archival news search and came up with a likely candidate. "The Ofa "a kauri built schooner. Ofa could mean "fathom", or if an apostrophe was used ('Ofa) - it means "Love" in the Tongan language.

Kauri-built vessels were ships made from locally sourced wood.

I think quite likely this is the ship wreck in question.  I speculate that it ran aground near the island - and bits of it got broken up and separated. Parts of the wreck got scattered on the beach - part of it sank where it is now.

There is another account of a shipwreck - a smaller schooner - the 60 ton Jiale Tafa also sunk in the same area in 1894. It was owned by Tongan royalty - the father of a Governor of Vavau. But this sort of celebrity sinking would have been remembered by the local people.

As for the "shallow wreck" there seems to be no one on the island who knows the name of the sinking of this ship. I presume it was because it happened during a hurricane - everyone hid indoors - and no one would have witnessed it crashing into the cove and sinking - what little of it was washed up onshore where it was reported in the news. I would also presume quite likely that the ship was abandoned prior to striking the island - may be it developed a dangerous list -and the crew abandoned it - and what was left of it struck the island. There were no reports of any human bodies found.

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