A row has erupted over documentary filmmakers claiming to uncover remains of Chinese miners underwater, with officials criticising them for an alleged lack of consultation with men’s families.
The remains of hundreds of Chinese gold miners have been discovered by Project Ventnor Group and Definitive Productions, who were filming a documentary.
The discovery could solve a 118-year-old maritime mystery, after the groups claimed they found the remains of 501 bodies, which were on the sunk ship the SS Ventnor.
However the New Zealand Chinese Association is disappointed the documentary makers were viewing and possibly filming remains of their ancestors. But the filmmakers are adamant no footage has been released showing remains.
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In 1902 the bodies of 501 Chinese miners were being sent home to their families via the SS Ventnor.
However, the ship struck a reef near Taranaki and sank off the Hokianga Heads near Northland. While most of the crew made it back to shore, 13 who were on board, including the captain, drowned.
In 2012, Project Ventnor chair John Albert, along with “underwater explorer” Keith Gordon, former NZ Dive editor Dave Moran and cameraman Eruera Morgan, went searching for the Ventnor.
They travelled to what they thought was the resting place of the SS Ventnor, and using an echo-sounder said they were able to pinpoint a large object believed to be the wreck. After a karakia in 2013 a remote-operated vehicle was lowered onto the site and it was confirmed to be the ship.
It was not until May 2020 that the remains were found, the documentary makers said.
Albert said he had been in touch with some descendents of the men, but was hoping to hear from others.
“The Chinese gold miners had been mistreated, and they died in a foreign country while trying to provide for their families back home. Their skills and hard work helped with not only mining, but also the building of infrastructure like roads, bridges, railway lines, as well as market gardening in New Zealand. They are our early pioneers,” he said.
“Just as we Māori have lobbied for the return of our kōiwi from museums and collectors from around the world, I feel an obligation to show the gold miners, our early settlers, the same respect and gratitude for their major contribution to our early history.”
He said he hoped the discovery would bring closure to the men’s families.
But the Chinese Association said it was disappointed that it had received minimal communication from Albert, informing them he found bones.
The association said it was distressed the Project Ventnor group “appears to want to claim the history”.
“We want to make it clear this story doesn’t belong to Mr Albert’s group,” said Richard Leung, New Zealand Chinese Association President.
“It belongs to us. We are the descendants of those people who were on the ship … I understand the remains Mr Albert has found are actually on the Ventnor wreck. As this is a protected archaeological site we’re leaving it to Heritage NZ to oversee that everything relating to those remains is done correctly.
“But certainly, Mr Albert should not be making claims on what will happen to the bones.”
Leung said the association had very close relationships with iwi on the coast – Te Roroa, Te Rarawa and now Te Hua o te Kawariki Trust, as well as Te Mahurehure.
Bill Edwards, Heritage New Zealand area manager for Northland, said the shipwreck was a gazetted archaeological site.
“An archaeological authority is required to investigate an archaeological site that may include modification and/or damage, but none has been applied for in this instance,” Edwards said.
“While the Act does not prevent divers from visiting or filming wrecks, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga considers it extremely insensitive to publicly show human remains without consultation, in this case with the wider New Zealand Chinese community.
“The shipwreck is considered a grave site.
“From initial viewing of the footage in the associated media article, it appears to be marine organisms discovered rather than human bones. Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga is investigating further.”
But Albert said the criticism against him and his documentary crew was “stretching the truth”, and he said he had contacted police over the discovery.
Albert said he had contacted senior members of the Chinese Association about the findings, and said no footage of remains had been broadcast. It was “not illegal” to film the ship, he said.
“I have every right legally to film the ship and tell the story.”