Communities unite to remember ancestors lost at sea

When the SS Ventnor sank off the Hokianga coast in 1902 it set in motion a story of connection between local Māori and New Zealand's Chinese community that lasts to this day. In this article, Leadership Network and Te Kāhui Māori member Ben Matthews (Ngāpuhi, Tauranga Moana, Ngāti Porou) looks at the Ventnor's story and recounts attending the recent unveiling of a memorial to mark the ship's sinking.
People paying their respects by burning incense

The occasion was marked by both Māori and Chinese traditions

The story of the SS Ventnor is an important part of New Zealand’s history, although it is not very well known among New Zealanders. The story demonstrates how two cultures can come together in a very special and moving way and I believe the account deserves greater awareness within New Zealand. 

I was honoured to be invited by the New Zealand Chinese Association Inc to attend the SS Ventnor Memorial Dedication Ceremony at the Manea Footprints of Kupe Centre in Opononi, Hokianga on 10 April 2021, representing the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network Advisory Board and the Foundation’s Te Kāhui Māori.

The story of the Ventnor emerges in 1902 when the charitable association Cheong Shing Tong chartered the ship SS Ventnor to repatriate the remains of 499 Chinese gold miners to New Zealand back to their homelands in Southern China. 

Three people chatting near the Chinese gate erected on the coast near where the Ventnor sank

The unveiling of the memorial provided an opportunity for people to meet and share stories

As the ship left New Zealand for Hong Kong on 26 October 1902, it struck a reef off the Taranaki coast, leading to damage and causing the ship to take on water. A decision was made to continue on to Auckland for repairs but, unable to go any further the ship sank off the coast of Hokianga. As a result, thirteen crew and passengers lost their lives and the remains of the miners were lost to the sea.

Over the next few months, the kōiwi (bones) began to wash ashore along the Hokianga coast as far north as Te Oneroa a Tōhē – Ninety Mile Beach.

What transpired over the ensuing months and years has been a source of inspiration to me as I have learnt more about this amazing story.

As the kōiwi washed up along the coastline, numerous local iwi respectfully and lovingly collected them and buried them alongside their own at traditional burial sites in the Hokianga. What amazes me most, is that although the iwi had no idea who the remains belonged to or where they came from, they treated them with great care and respect, as if they were of their own.

A traditional Chinese dragon dance being performed

A dragon dance being performed at the memorial unveiling

A hundred and nineteen years on, I was privileged to witness the blessing of the new monument erected in memory of this tragic event. It was both refreshing and inspiring to observe how the Māori and Chinese cultures came together in such a seamless, respectful and complimentary way. It also highlights the Māori value of manaakitanga, in that for Māori, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from or your status in life, we are all the same and all peoples deserve to be treated with respect. 

As I attended the pōwhiri at the dedication ceremony and reflected on the whaikōrero (speeches) from the tangata whenua and the Chinese community representatives, I was reminded of the striking cultural similarities that Māori and Chinese share including a devotion to genealogy, a respect for elders and kinship, interpersonal relationships and for upholding tradition and cultural values including manaakitanga and kaitiakitanga. These values are exhibited strongly through the story of the Ventnor.

The memorial to the SS Ventnor

The SS Ventnor Memorial in Opononi

As I reflected on the plight of those early miners at the blessing and following it, I could not help but feel a sense of sorrow. They left behind their families to come to Aotearoa – a land foreign to them with an unfamiliar culture and language where they faced poverty, racial discrimination, culture shock and linguistic barriers. Although many of them did not intend to stay permanently, unfortunately they passed away here.

I have, however, found solace in the comforting words spoken by a local kaumātua to the Chinese community and descendants of the miners during the pōwhiri for the memorial blessing, “your ancestors are also a part of us now, they are now resting alongside our ancestors and under the watchful gaze of our mountains, rivers and oceans. You are us, and we are you. May their souls rest in peace.”

“Ko ahau, ko koe. Ko koe, ko ahau”  (You are me, and I am you)

Māori Proverb

(Photos by James To)