South Seas Trading - Suwarrow Treasure

Copyright 1993   Anthony G. Flude.

The partners now began to centre their entire shipping fleet in the Pacific region, safeguarding their interests in other areas by acting as agents for the California shipping Line who ran the vessels NAVADA, NEBRASKA and DECOTAH from American ports to Sydney and Auckland. In 1871 they also secured agencies for the Pacific Mail Company and the Oceanic Company.

The New Zealand government advised Thomas Henderson in 1873 that his long outstanding Land Claim was to be settled in full, including the outlay for surveyors and fencing of the property. At last he had full legal title to his land. Elected to his seat in parliament for the Waitemata electorate in 1871, Thomas remained until 1873 before retiring in favour of his son-in law, Gustav von der Heyde.
Another disastrous fire occurred in October, 1873 at their Queen Street premises. At 12.10 am fire appliances were summoned to the rear of the premises which were ablaze. There was a shortage of water as the township did not have a permanent supply and a rider was sent off at a gallop to the Domain to turn on the water so the brigade could fight the fire. Again the company suffered losses in stock, estimated at £ 40,000.
The vessels of the fleet, under Captain Theet, began exploring the Pacific for trade and also looked for islands on which the company could set up trading posts and cultivate coconut palms and cotton. The ships captain's were made aware that although the British Government disapproved of the annexing of islands in the Pacific, it was prepared to grant licences to any trading company wishing to work and occupy them if they were uninhabited. In this way, Britain felt, that if the islands had the benefit of being occupied then foreign powers would not become alarmed at their annexation becoming a formal act in the future.
Suwarrow atoll was occupied in this way and also Christmas Island where the firm planted some 30,000 coconut palms. Similarly, although populated, ships of the fleet visited Manihiki and Niue, setting up trading posts. The uninhabited islands of Jarvis, Palmyra and Tongareva became important trading posts in the Pacific for Henderson & Macfarlane.. Many years later there was to be a dispute over ownership of one of these islands and the British Crown were able to prove ownership by showing that the Circular Saw line vessels had taken occupation and sovereignty for Queen Victoria during this time.
Newspaper reports, both in New Zealand and Australia, carried reports of injury and murder carried out against missionaries, crews of ships and traders by the Pacific island natives. In order to understand their hostility towards the white man, one has to go back to the post convict period between 1788, when Botany Bay, Australia was first settled with convicts from England, until the mid 1880's. Although the Spaniards took native slaves from the islands prior to the 1800's, these were few compared to the period when the white man arrived in the Pacific. Deported from Britain, America and Europe, the Pacific Ocean became the haunts of escaped convicts and sailors fleeing the law or hardships imposed by harsh officers aboard ship.
A kidnapping era began where the native men and women were enticed aboard a pirated vessel by these ruthless men posing as legitimate traders. Armed men would come ashore, round up a large group of natives at gunpoint and herd them into the vessels holds. The Peru kidnappers were infamous in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, where many an island was denuded of its population of native labour, taking them as slaves to work in the Peruvian Mines. The British and German Governments, as late as 1864, protested most strongly about these actions.
By the 1850's many of these ruthless human traders had met their just desserts, either by killing each other or being killed by their native captives. Any white trader needed to beware of setting foot on island soil, lest they in turn be killed by the natives. Many incidents of this hatred of the white man are recorded including the murder of Captain Cook. An Australian trader named Boyd, was murdered by Solomon Islanders in 1851, the same natives having murdered three missionaries who landed the year before. New Zealander, Gilbert Mair, was clubbed to death by the natives of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides as late as 1881 while recruiting workers for other island plantations.
Adventurer and explorer of the Pacific, Handley Bathhurst Sterndale came to see Mr. Henderson after hearing of the firms expansion into the Pacific islands for trade. Sterndale had written several articles for the NZ HERALD about his exploits over the years as a trader. His article included information about how in May 1873, a young English sailor named Richard Chave, had become stranded on the small uninhabited atoll of Suwarrow for two years with his Penryn islander companion called Barney. Together they lived a 'Robinson Crusoe' type existence. Chave was rescued by a Captain Ellicott who's schooner was forced into the lagoon to repair damage he had sustained during a violent storm.


Anchorage Island  
Suwarrow Atoll  

      Suwarrow Atoll is now a New Zealand protectorate and is part of
      the Cook Island group. The atoll is barely two and a half square
      kilometres in area and lies 800 kilometres due east of Samoa and 3,200
      kilometres north-east of New Zealand. It has no fresh water or fruit and
      because of this remained uninhabited for many years. It was uncharted on
      earlier maps and charts and gained its name during the visit of a Russian
      vessel, the SUVOROV. The atoll was a likely place to hide ill-gotten gains
      from plundered ships plying the trade routes across the Pacific Ocean.
      Lime fortifications and pottery, found in the sand by Sterndale, showed
      that at some previous time Spanish and Portugese ships had called there.
It is on record, Sterndale related, that in 1850 a Tahitian schooner went to salvage oil from the stranded American vessel GEM and the captain had searched around the tall palm trees near the beach of Anchorage Island and dug up a small buried treasure chest containing gold and silver coin. He had heard of a German trader working in Apia, Samoa, who had become the next treasure hunter on Suwarrow after purchasing an old map from a drunken sailor. He found an old iron chest containing Spanish pieces of eight and silver of Mexican origin valued at US$22,000. The last known treasure find was in 1876 when the atoll was occupied by Sterndale, his wife and several Chinese workers. This particular adventure would have been very familiar to the author Robert Louis Stevenson and is echoed in his tale TREASURE ISLAND.
Mr. Henderson carefully considered Sterndale's proposition of setting up a trading post and base on Suwarrow Atoll. It was well situated and could be used by small vessels to store the cargo of copra, shell, pearl and other commodities brought in from the other islands and atolls in the adjacent areas. Additionally, Sterndale's previous experience soon convinced Mr. Henderson that this could become a paying proposition. The partners agreed that Sterndale should become their Manager for the Pacific region and that he would be based on Suwarrow atoll.
With the aid of the crew of the firms 85 ton brigantine RYNO, Sterndale put together the house in frames that they had brought with them from Auckland close to the beach on Anchorage Island, Suwarrow. They built a small coral wall in front to form a fortress and laid in the two cannons facing out into the lagoon to ward off unwanted visitors. Nearby they built a brick reservoir to catch rainwater and a long coral wharf out into the deeper water so vessels could load and unload provisions, supplies and cargo's. The operation began well and the partners in Auckland were well pleased with his efforts and organising abilities. An ambitious man, Sterndale convinced himself that he was now eligible to become a partner in the firm. This was disputed by Mr.Henderson who informed him that he was nothing more than an employee of the company.
The dispute continued into 1876 and the partners decided they must end the matter once and for all and ordered Sterndale and his wife to return to Auckland on the first available vessel. He flatly refused to leave. By October, Mr. Henderson took matters into his own hands and dispatched the company vessel KREIMHELDA, under Captain Fernandez, with orders to sail to Suwarrow to bring them back. When they anchored off the wharf at the atoll, Captain Fernandez found Sterndale had barricaded himself, his wife and Chinese workers in the house. He appeared at the door, brandishing a revolver, and fired shots at Captain Fernandez as he approached the house.
Retreating to the ship, the captain and crew placed the house under siege, firing rifle shots into the walls and into the water tank to try to force him to surrender. The Circular Saw Line brigantine RYNO was close by and arrived to find the position in stalemate. On board was a close friend of Sterndale named Captain Mair. Forbidden by the ships captain to leave the vessel, Mair slipped quietly overboard that night into the dark waters of the lagoon. He swam strongly for the distant shoreline, aware that in these waters lurked many large man-eating sharks. As he lay gasping for breath on the white sands, the faint sounds of a scuffle nearby caught his attention and he found a turtle digging frantically in the sand, having chosen this spot to lay her eggs.
Hearing the sound of metal chinking, he decided to investigate further. Disturbed, the turtle scuttled away back into the dark waters, Mair dug around in the hole she had made with his bare hands. Finally he had cleared enough sand to see the dark outline of a rusty metal box, broken on one end, where necklaces and brooches in gold and silver lay in the sand in the pale moonlight. Glancing down he recalled he only had on his underclothes. He had nothing to carry it away in. Exposing the box, Mair dragged it along the sand, aiming to re-bury it at another spot so he could return on another occasion to claim his find. Into his vest he slipped a few gold coins and rings and having carefully noted the position he had re-buried the treasure, made his way to Sterndale's house.


Sterndale's House And Fortress

At first Sterndale thought it was some trick to get him out, but finally convinced of the identity of his night caller, opened the door and let Henry Mair inside. Mair was unable to convince Sterndale to surrender and the matter was finally brought to a conclusion when Captain Fernandez and his crew decided to smoke Sterndale out of the house with green pandanus leaves. Sterndale surrendered as smoke billowed through the small house. In the company of Captain Fernandez, Sterndale was placed on board the KREIMHELDA and she set sail for Auckland. Sterndale was later charged by the police with 'discharging a firearm with intent to kill', but Captain Fernandez spoke on his behalf in court, and the judge ruled the matter to be out of his jurisdiction. Sterndale and his wife left Auckland shortly after for the west coast of America.

Sterndale's two cannon

Henry Mair left his hoard on Suwarrow and continued to work around the Pacific islands. In a letter, dated 1878, to his brother Gilbert Mair in New Zealand, he wrote:

"People have been talking to me about my plant on Suwarrow, but they all want the lion's share. I am not afraid of anyone finding it. A letter has been in my box for two years, to be forwarded in case I come to grief, giving an accurate description of the place, with the camp as bearings and distances from various points, so anyone with ordinary care could not fail to hit it......."
The box was never to reach his brother. In 1881, Henry Mair was clubbed to death by the suspicious natives of Cape Lisbon, on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides, where he had called there as a recuiting agent on board the Scooner ISABELLA. His box and its contents were never found.

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