The word ‘treasure’ means different things to different people, but when treasure is mentioned in connection with a sunken sailing ship, we all have a tendency to allow our imaginations to get the better of us. Bars of gold and silver, pirates’ pieces-of-eight, precious coins and jewels crowd the mind. However, the treasure I found in the wreck of the Lastingham was none of these things; it was the small personal belongings of one of the few immigrant women on board, who lost her life in the tragedy.
The Lastingham was a fine fully rigged steel ship, with three masts and a deck cabin abaft the main mast, to accommodate a few fare-paying passengers. She left England in mid-1884 with a complement of 30, which included the captain’s wife and five immigrant passengers, two of them women, who were seeking a new life in Wellington, the capital city of the fledgling colony of New Zealand.
All went well until the first of September 1884, when she was struck by a raging gale in the Cook Strait, the notorious stretch of wild sea between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Whether it was the pressure of the storm or faulty navigation we shall never know, but although she was on the correct easterly course, running before the storm, she was just one mile too far south of her proper course. She ran at full speed into the little northerly reaching peninsula of Cape Jackson, only a few miles from the safety of Queen Charlotte Sound and only a few more miles to her intended destination, Wellington.
By chance, the vessel’s bow had driven onto a small beach and into a cleft in the rocky shore, holding the ship temporarily in a vice-like grip. This allowed those of the crew who were on the fore-deck to clamber over the bow and jump onto the shore. They shouted to those still on board to hurry forward, but their cries were drowned out by the wind and the grinding of the ship on the rocks.
At that moment, the force of the gale broached the ship around, exposing the side of the vessel to the full fury of the wind and waves. The deckhouse was quickly swept away and all 18 people still on board — including Captain Alexandra Morrison, his wife, 11 members of the crew and all five unfortunate passengers — were washed into the sea and drowned. The survivors, many of them injured, spent a miserable 40 hours on the windswept and sea-lashed Cape, until they were rescued by the ketch Agnes.
In 1973, I was researching interesting shipwrecks to dive on and came across the story of the Lastingham, but as she was in a rather remote, hard-to-get-to area, I had to wait a while before getting the opportunity to dive on her. In the meantime, I studied the details of the wreck and the equally important details of the sea bottom thereabouts.
One thing of interest caught my attention regarding the sea floor in the wreck site. Although the wreck was in reasonably shallow water — for an experienced diver — below the wreck, in much deeper water, was a flat area of mud. I surmised that artefacts from the wreck could have washed out of the broken-up hull, rolled down the steep bank and become lodged in the sticky mud. So when my turn eventually came to dive the site, I determined that that would be my target area.
Eventually, my turn came as part of an eight-man team on board a hired dive-charter vessel out of Picton, bound for six days diving in the outer reaches of Queen Charlotte Sound, the last resting place of the Lastingham. I was determined to search that deep patch of mud for artefacts. However, before we reached the wreck site that I was so interested in, we had to pass another well-known site, that of the wreck of the Rangitoto. This wreck is in quite shallow, clear, calm waters, and we decided to have a shake-down dive there, just to test all our gear was working properly, before the deeper dives later in the day.
After the dive, our dive cylinders were put on charge on the boat’s air compressor, and I recall my cylinder was the third one to be charged, a detail that seemed completely insignificant at that time but was to assume importance later.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at the dive site. After locating the area I’d specified with the depth sounder, we dropped an anchored line with a buoy attached and prepared to dive. Our plan was for three of us to go down as a team, with me leading and being responsible for the time we spent on the bottom and any decompression stops required on the way back up. I would jump in first and swim down to the bottom, then my two companions would follow and we would meet up at the anchor before starting a planned patterned search.
As I took my first lungful of air, I noticed a very faint taste of oil and mentioned it to the skipper. My two companions also claimed they could taste oil, but the skipper assured us there could be nothing wrong with the air as the compressor had been fully serviced the day before. Reassured, I jumped in and swam down the line to the anchor.
My first few breaths as I descended still had a slight oily taste, but by the time I reached the anchor I was no longer aware of any taste. Neither of my two companions joined me on the bottom, as both their air supplies were badly contaminated with oil. They’d come down about 30 metres, then, feeling sick and dizzy, they’d returned to the surface. It later transpired that their cylinders had been first and second to be refilled from the newly-serviced compressor, while mine had been number three. Later, we worked out that the compressor had been overfilled with oil, which had made its way into the air intake. Any contamination of air used to sustain life at depth is extremely dangerous. It can impair reasoning and give the diver a false sense of security. The effects can creep over the diver slowly but insidiously without him realising he’s in danger.
I waited at the anchor a few minutes, but when my companions didn’t appear I decided that, rather than miss an opportunity, I would carry on alone.
Visibility was quite dark, but right on the sea floor I could see under the murk for a limited distance. The muddy bottom was quite flat with a few protrusions, which I recognised as champagne bottles. My research had told me these had been part of the ship’s cargo. As I looked, the bottom seemed to shimmer and I felt a little peculiar, but I put it down to my sudden plunge into the depths. I shook my head to clear my vision, never realising I was being slowly poisoned by what I was breathing.
I set off on what I planned to be a circular swim around the anchor. However, because of my comparative increase in weight at that depth, and in my increasingly confused state, I had completely forgotten to let air into my buoyancy compensator to equalise my weight. It became a wallow in the mud, and I kicked up silt, further reducing visibility.
As I wallowed along I picked up a number of objects, mostly bottles and other glass objects. But the last object I found I was convinced was a two handled silver rose bowl. I carefully placed it into my bulging sack.
By sheer chance, I then came face to face with the anchor cable. I actually laughed to myself, thinking, ‘I’d forgotten all about returning to the anchor, but it’s come and found me.’ This sort of confused thinking should have told me I was in serious trouble, but because my brain was already poisoned, I did not recognise it. I looked at my watch, but the figures were blurred and made no sense. I tried to swim for the surface, but I found I was too heavy to get off the bottom as the sack I was carrying was holding me down. I paused, hanging on the anchor line, trying to think what was wrong, trying to recall something I’d planned.
What I could not remember for a moment was that there was a buoyancy air-bag tied to the sack, which just needed a few puffs of air from me to give it enough buoyancy to get it up. At that very moment the air-bag floated around into my view, reminding me what I had to do.
I took the inflation tube in my left hand and, after taking a good breath from my breathing set, removed my mouth-piece with my right hand and blew a lungful of air into the buoyancy bag. I then replaced my mouthpiece and repeated the same process several times. The air-bag finally overcame the weight of the sack and slowly floated up over my head, with me momentarily holding on to it, somewhat reluctant to let go and allow my new found treasures to head for the surface without me.
But then, as I returned the mouthpiece to my mouth for what should have been a lifesaving breath of air, I nearly drowned. Instead of a lungful of air, I got a mouthful of muddy water, which I was obliged to swallow to stop me drowning. After another attempt to breathe with the same result, I thought to myself, in a rather fuddled and detached way, ‘Do something about this or you’ll drown’.
At that moment, in the deep dark depths, I was probably as close to death as it’s possible to come without actually dying. It was as if I were two separate people; the first person was a rather uninterested and cynical observer, watching a very stupid second person make an absolute fool of himself for no understandable reason.
The next thing I did, fortunately as it turned out, was to let go of the buoyant flotation bag line, in order take my mouthpiece out to see if it was broken. Then, as the buoyancy bag floated up away from me, a piece of stray rope attached to it tightened up and pulled the mouthpiece from my mouth. It all seem to happen in a pleasant slow motion, but made me realise that the rope from the buoyancy bag had been tangled around the mouthpiece, keeping my mouth open to the sea. My numb lips hadn’t felt anything wrong. From the deepest recesses of my almost non-functioning memory, my old navy training came back to me: in any underwater illness, the first signs of onset are numbness of the extremities, including lips.
Once I stuck the mouthpiece back in my mouth, I could breathe air again. Later, I realised that because I still hadn’t put any air into my buoyancy compensator I was too heavy to swim for the surface, but I did make an effort to pull myself up the anchor line. My last conscious thought was, ‘Pull yourself together, old son, or you won’t make it to the surface.’
I did make it to the surface, of course, but I don’t remember actually swimming it, only being on the surface with the sun shining in my eyes, and feeling very sick and still not having put any air into my compensator. Quickly, the boat picked me up, and my grey-faced companions told me that my two dive companions were feeling very sick and that everyone considered I had passed out on the bottom and would never surface. They also told me that my artefacts had been picked up earlier.
Any thought of further deep diving were abandoned for the rest of the trip while we stripped down and identified the problem of the compressor. We spent the rest of the trip spear fishing and catching crayfish, as we didn’t trust the air from the compressor.
When I got to examine what I’d recovered, it was as I’d suspected. A variety of Victorian glassware, from various-sized bottles of champagne to a Lee and Perrin’s sauce bottle and even a small ink pot. But what, in my confused state of mind, I’d taken to be a two-handled silver rose bowl turned out to be nothing more than a china teapot, which at first appeared to be full of mud. Much later, I cleaned out the mud and discovered in the teapot a little bundle wrapped in what had once been oilskin. This contained a number of small items that I’ve since regarded as the ‘treasure of the Lastingham’.
There was a gold watch, which was really only brass, a number of coins of various dates, which were probably not someone’s life savings as they were only pennies and half farthings. There were also a number of thimbles, one of which was clearly marked ‘Mary’, suggesting that the unfortunate prospective immigrant could have been a seamstress.
There was also a little brass bell-like object that no one has been able to positively identify. For a number of years I had the collection on display in a well-known maritime-themed restaurant, and then, for the last 10 years, in Wellington’s Maritime Museum. Recently, the Maritime Museum has changed its focus and become the Wellington City Museum, which has allowed me to repossess most of my Lastingham artefacts.
These few small objects have no great value, but to me they are real treasures as they represent the spirit that made New Zealand. Once long ago they represented the hopes and dreams of Mary, a brave young women who left her home and her loved ones to travel halfway around the world in the expectation of a better life, rather as I did almost a century later. What she found was a cruel death in a cold, dark sea. As it transpired, I almost did as well, but for my navy dive training and a very large dollop of extremely good luck. Because I admired Mary’s bravery in striving for a new and better life and lament her sad passing, her few small possessions will always be treasure to me.
Mary’s few treasures are now on display in my home for anyone who’s interested. The display pays tribute to her and the rest of the Lastingham’s company and all those other unfortunate victims who have lost their lives in shipwrecks and sea tragedies around our shores.