Ship of Rings

Mahia Peninsula has recently been put on the map because it is the location for rocket launches by New Zealand’s Rocket Lab. Prior to this, the area was little known to most New Zealanders. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a ship that was wrecked beside the peninsula at the end of the 19th century has faded into history without so much as a ripple – that is until it was discovered the ship was carrying a large amount of Victorian era jewellery.

WRECK OF THE TASMANIA

An hour before midnight on the 29th July 1897, a southerly storm raged as the Huddart-Parker Co. steamer Tasmania, on its way from Auckland to Dunedin, struck rocks at Māhia Peninsula. A freezing wind battered the 148 passengers and crew as the ship settled lower and lower into the black sea.  Six lifeboats were launched but unfortunately one capsized and the nine men onboard were drowned. As well as this, a seaman and passenger were lost overboard on one of the other lifeboats. The ship sank in deep water within an hour, taking with it 20 poor horses that were also onboard with no hope of survival. This was a time when coastal shipping was the main mode of transport for moving people and goods around the young colony. It was also a time when ships were frequently lost due to poor navigation, engine breakdowns and incompetent (often drunk) captains. In fact, there are over 2000 shipwrecks around New Zealand with many of them happening during the last decades of the 19th century. To date, only 140 have been located so there must be many other treasures lying beneath the waves that bash against the country’s dangerous, rocky shores.

SS Tasmania (stuff.co.nz)

The Tasmania was just another tragic loss to add to the many others that disappeared beneath the waves around the rugged New Zealand coastline. However, there was something a little different about this wreck as one of the surviving passengers, wealthy Wellington jewellery merchant Isador Jonah Rothschild, had a suitcase full of jewels valued at £3000 (nearly $600,000 today) which went down with the ship. Over the following few years, a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to retrieve the treasure. In 1973, on hearing about the valuable Victorian era jewels, marine archaeologist Kelly Tarlton purchased the rights to the wreck. Over a ten year period of sporadic dives at the dangerous location, he was able to recover about 250 pieces, worth around $300.000, from the ship. Despite the impressive haul, he believed that more than half the jewellery was still hidden among the remains of the decaying vessel.

Rings from the Tasmania (nzhistory.govt.nz)

RINGS STOLEN

The rescued jewellery was held in a safe at Kelly Tarlton’s Tui Shipwreck Museum at Waitangi but on April 8, 2000, 23-year-old Keith Anthony McEwen who worked at the museum as a kitchen hand, stole coins, rings, and diamond jewellery from a glass-covered vault. He left fingerprints on the case and was sentenced to jail for 7½ years for the theft. Fearing for his life, he refused to divulge the whereabouts of the treasure, saying most of it was in gang hands.

In 2009, police confirmed coins, thought to be part of the stolen collection, were for sale on Trade Me. Despite investigators offering rewards, and circulating pamphlets in prisons, as well as searching McEwen’s childhood fishing spot in a Northland stream, none of the stolen treasure has been recovered.

As Kiwi rockets head for the skies from Mahia Peninsula, I wonder if any of those working at the launch site are aware that the remaining valuable contents of a suitcase that belonged to a passenger on a coastal steamer that sank in the 19th century, lie hidden by the waves that roll over the rocks a stone’s throw away.

Ceidrik Heward

Comments

  1. angus chirnside says:

    Nice story, Ceidrik

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