Tonga – Port au Prince discovered?

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Darren Rice, a keen diver and owner of Matafonua Lodge Resort, on nearby Foa island, examined the wreck site. He described finding anchors, copper sheathing, copper bolts and other remains indicating it was the site of an

old shipwreck. Although there was much speculation that this was the Port au Prince, Darren considered further investigation was required to determine if it was the lost pirate ship.The story of the Port au Prince is recorded in the book; An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, by William Mariner, published in 1823. Reprinted numerous times it is still popular today. Mariner was a teenage sailor on the Port au Prince, a British privateer departing England in 1805 and spent two years raiding Spanish settlements and capturing vessels along the South American Pacific coast. With captured treasure aboard, the ship then sailed for the South Pacific in search of whales. In December 1806, the vessel arrived at Lifuka where the cannon aboard and ship’s iron fittings soon attracted the attention of the local King. He ordered the capture of the ship and the massacre of the crew, but spared the life of young Mariner to show the Tongans how to use the guns. The captured ship was brought into the shallows where it is reported the cannons were removed and it was set afire to obtain the iron, but the treasure remained aboard where it reportedly still remains.

At Darren’s request, I traveled to Foa with fellow New Zealand Underwater Heritage Group member, Dave Moran, to investigate the wreck site to try to confirm the origin of the wreck remains. We stayed and operated from Matafonua Lodge Resort, situated in an idyllic location on white sands with clear coral waters lapping close to accommodation fales. The Resort is a favourite destination for tourists in the whale watching season and Darren

and his staff, operate swimming with whales and dive trips to spectacular locations. A few steps across white sands from your accommodation are shallow-water coral gardens with prolific marine life, which can engross

divers and family for many hours.

The wreck site resembles an amphitheater with ancient coral walls partially enclosing a coral rubble bottom that slopes into the depths. Scattered and buried amongst the bottom rubble are wreck artifacts, including: copper bolts, copper hull sheathing, portholes, deadeyes and unidentified coral encrusted wreckage. The earphones of our underwater metal detectors constantly sang the sound of metal as the detector coils were waved to and

fro across the bottom. Fused into the coral walls that rose towards the shallows, were the remains of anchor chain and other coral encrusted shapes also revealed as containing metal. Above, in the reef shallows, pockets and guts, swept over by surf, trapped copper sheathing tacks, nails and other small metallic objects. At the base of the reef a large anchor stood upright against the coral wall and nearby the broken remains of another

anchor.

We set to mapping and imaging the wreck site. What appeared to be a large clump of coral was identified to be a winch, other coral formations also turned out to be encrusted wreck remains. Fanning the rubble covering metal

detector targets revealed numerous copper bolts and fittings. We followed the wreck trail down past 30 metres, but it seemed to run out leaving the question whether further remains lay deeper. We spent a week diving the

wreck site recording what we found and looking for a clue that could identify the nationality of the wreck.

Was this the remains of the Port au Prince, or some other unknown vessel lost in these tropical Isles? We knew

the Port au Prince had been built in France and carried a large number of cannons. There was no evidence of cannons, but we also knew the Tongans had removed them at the time of capture. In a village near the wreck site we found a cannon similar to those carried on the Port au Prince; the locals told us of their own beliefs why the nearby wreck is the Port au Prince and the pirate ship was not, as recorded, in the shallows off Lifuka.

Perhaps the wreckage we examined was only part of the wrecked vessel and more remains lay deeper or further along the reef.

We found no treasure but who knows what is hidden beneath the blanket of coral or under the bottom debris. It is an amazing dive with great visibility and the excitement of possible historical discovery. When you visit Matafonua Lodge Resort, ask Darren to take you to the wreck site, you might possibly swim over hidden treasure of a lost pirate ship –the Port au Prince.


Note: Matafonua Lodge Resort is currently being rebuilt after cyclone Ian passed over the island early January. The resort will be operational for the coming whale watching and diving season. www.matafonua.com E: info@matafonua.com

 

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