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New Zealanders debate fate of 1902 corpse ship

Nick Perry
Associated Press

Wellington, New Zealand — The S.S. Ventnor sank 112 years ago off the northern New Zealand coast, bearing unusual cargo: the exhumed bodies of 499 Chinese miners, some in wooden coffins and others in sealed zinc caskets.

They had tried their luck in New Zealand’s gold rush, and had paid in advance to ensure their bodies would go back to China, no matter what. A wreck believed to be the ship was discovered in 2012, raising the possibility that someday, the remains might go home.

Now the question is: Should they?

The wreck was found by a team led by John Albert, an amateur New Zealand filmmaker. He says he was drawn to the Ventnor’s story after standing at a bluff overlooking the Hokianga Harbour — near its final resting place — and feeling a chill, like a spirit had entered him.

But his work, including a news conference publicly announcing the wreck’s discovery last week, has upset some members of New Zealand’s Chinese community, who say he removed artifacts from the wreck without consulting them and against their wishes.

“I went to the media conference and had no idea what was going on. I was shocked and disappointed that we hadn’t been consulted and hadn’t been informed beforehand,” said Virginia Chong, the immediate past president of the New Zealand Chinese Association. “The bodies and bones on that ship are our ancestors, our people.”

Albert said he did speak to a number of people in the Chinese community, but couldn’t consult with everyone.

He plans to make a documentary about the Ventnor, but said he never intended to profit from his activities, as some have assumed.