A wreck, believed to be that of the historic pirate ship Port-au-Prince, has been discovered by divers off Tonga in the Pacific. The ship, laden with looted treasure, is believed to have been scuttled by the local king in 1806 after she strayed into Tongan waters in search of whales. The story goes that King Finau Ulukalala II killed almost all the crew before burning and sinking the pirate ship; only iron and cannon was salvaged while the treasure was mysteriously scuttled along with the ship.
The site of the wreck of the Port-au-Prince has long been the stuff of legend and speculation. Now, with its presumed discovery off Foa Island by local diver Tevita Moala, a treasure hunt will inevitably be sparked in the waters around in the Ha'apai Island group. The Greenwich Maritime Museum and the Marine Archaeological Society have found that the age of the copper sheathing from the site matches the ship's age.
The story of the French built Port au Prince was spread after one of its four surviving crew, deckhand William Mariner, returned to England after four years in Tonga. He had changed his name to Toki Ukamea- Iron Axe- and wrote a detailed account of the events surrounding the ship and his time in Tonga. The ship had reached the Ha'apai islands on November 9 1806 laden with Spanish and French loot from ships and Spanish Peruvian settlements. She had been at sea for two years, and was laden with silver and gold ore when she was attacked by Tongan locals, who dragged her ashore for its iron before sinking it.
Sandra Fifita, a tourism official from the Tongan government, said after the find, “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,” she said.
“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.”
“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,” Mrs Fifita said.
It is still to be confirmed that the wreck is indeed that of the historic vessel. Many Tongans fear that such a confirmation might attract adventurers in droves to the area, and are keen to map and document the site before that happens. Located on a reef known for bad weather, the wreck has been "pounded by 4-5 metre swells for 200 years, so there's wreckage scattered all over the sea floor," according to local resort owner Darren Rice.
As to the question of whether the wreck is really that of the Port-au-Prince, he says, "Only one ship of that era has ever gone missing in Ha'apai, so if it's not the Port-au-Prince, what is it?"