Maritime Monday: The sinking of the SS Ventnor

Sir George Grey Special Collections, AWNS-19021113-2-1
In 1902 the SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga coast with the remains of 499 Chinese people on board. It had left Wellington just two days before. The bodies were being returned on the Hong Kong bound vessel to their families to be buried in accordance with Chinese tradition.

The SS Ventnor had been hired by the Admiralty to carry a standard cargo of coal from Westport to Hong Kong but was also under charter to the Cheong Shing Tong Society. This Society was concerned with Chinese immigrants from the Poon Yue area in the Guandong Province of southern China, particularly the poor and the elderly, and operated under the leadership of prominent Dunedin businessman Choie Sew Hoy.

Choie Sew Hoy, about 1895
Choie Sew Hoy died in 1901. In 1883 the Cheong Shing Tong Society had exhumed and returned to China the bodies of 230 miners, so it was natural for his son Kum Poy Sew Hoy to arrange for the Society to return his father, along with many others, to his ancestral home.

The Auckland Star, 30th October 1902
Just after midday on the day of departure the SS Ventnor struck a submerged reef just off Cape Egmont. Wellington didn’t have the facilities to repair the vessel so it carried on to Auckland with water starting to enter the ballast tanks and at the entrance to Hokianga Harbour the order to abandon ship was given.

Nigel Sew Hoy, Great-Great grandson of Choie Sew Hoy wrote in 2007:
When Kum Poy Sew Hoy received the sad news, he immediately engaged people to search the area. A canvas bag of bones was found washed up on Ninety Mile Beach in the Far North. This was sent to China as the only remains. The rest of Ventnor's unusual cargo was not recovered. A court of inquiry ruled that the Captain had been negligent and incompetent and responsible for the wreck because of his poor navigation around Cape Egmont. (Bananas NZ Going Global International Conference 18-19 August).
Nigel and his family hoped to be able to carry out their grandfather’s dream to have the Ventnor salvaged, the bones identified and returned to China.

The location of the ship remained a mystery until December 2012 when, after a search of three years, it was found by documentary producer John Albert, assisted by charter boat owners John and Linda Pattinson and underwater explorer Keith Gordon. A recent article from the New Zealand Herald explains the story and highlights the importance of the find to ties between China and New Zealand.

For more on the SS Ventnor read the article 'The mysterious wreck of the coffin ship', pages 160-161, in Secrets & treasures: our stories told through the objects at Archives New Zealand, available for loan from Auckland Libraries.


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