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The Port au Prince: Massacre & treasure in the Friendly Islands

Written on the 23rd of October 2011 by Fins 'n' Flukes

The Port au Prince was an English private ship of war, a vessel of 500 tons armed with 24 long nine and twelve pound guns as well as 8 twelve pound carronades on the quarter deck. She carried a “letter of marque” and this document permitted her Captain and crew to become pirates against the enemies of England, primarily France and Spain. In payment for their pirate raids any plunder they seized was to be their own.

Commanded by Captain Duck she sailed for the New World on February 12th 1805 having been given a twofold commission by her owner, a Mr. Robert Bent of London. Their primary goal was to attack the Spanish ships of the New World capturing gold and valuables but if she failed in that task her secondary objective was to sail into the Pacific in search of Whales to be rendered for their oil.

The Atlantic crossing was rough but uneventful and she lay off the coast of Brazil by April and then rounded Cape Horn in July before proceeding north in search of Spanish Galleons laden with treasure. They captured a number of ships but most yielded little in the way of valuables and at times the men began to get disgruntled by capturing what they contemptuously referred to as dung barges. The Port au Prince was now also on the lookout for whales as well but, although catching a few, experienced little success in this endeavor.

After leaving Hawaii in September under the command of Mr. Brown, she intended to make port at Tahiti but missed the target and instead sailed westward for the Tonga Islands. She arrived in Ha’apai on November 09th 1806, almost two years since departing England and after numerous engagements, leaking badly and having already witnessing the death of her captain. She was laden with the spoils of war and cargo amounting to approx twelve thousand dollars plus a considerable amount of copper plus silver and gold ore. A large quantity of silver candlesticks, chalices, incense pans, crucifixes and images complimented the treasure.

She weighed anchor for what was destined to be the last time in seven fathoms water off the North West Point of Lifuka Island. A number of chiefs visited the ship on the evening of her arrival and brought with them barbequed hogs, yams and a native of Hawaii who spoke some English informing Captain Brown that the Tongans had only friendly intentions. The Port au Prince also had Hawaiian crew who did not trust the situation and expressed concern to the captain that the Tongans were feigning friendliness while planning attack. Captain Brown choose to ignore the warnings, therein signing his own death warrant and that of many of his crew.

The next day the natives began to swarm the boat until there were around 300 in different parts of the ship. They invited Captain Duck ashore to see the Island and assured of their friendly motives he agreed. On arrival he was clubbed to death, stripped and left lying in the sand. Simultaneously the main attack commenced on the Port au Prince. The sailors were outnumbered and overwhelmed easily. The massacre was brutal and swift seeing all but four of the crew members clubbed to death, their heads so badly beaten as to be unrecognizable to the survivors. For the next three days the ship was stripped of her iron, a valuable commodity, and had her guns removed before being burnt to the water line to more readily remove what iron remained.
One of the survivors was a boy by the name of William Mariner and Finau, the King of the Islands, had taken a shining to the lad when they first met aboard the Prince. Will reminded the King of his son who had died of illness and when the attack on the ship was being planned Finau had given instructions that the life of Mariner should be spared if at all possible. He was renamed Toki (Iron Axe) and spent the next four years living amongst the islanders. During this time he would witness the attempted unification of the Kingdom by Finau using the very guns seized from the Prince. One long nine still lies on Ha’anno Island. After rescue and his return to England Mariner related his story to John Martin who penned the famous book “The Tongan Islands, William Mariners account”. Anthropologically the book is widely accepted as the most important pre christian polynesnia work ever written.

On the 8th of December 2009, almost two hundred and three years to the day, we were conducting a dive course when a heavy squall forced us to abandon the planned site and make haste for shelter in the lee of Lifuka Island. We dropped anchor directly off Mui Kuku point on the North West tip of Lifuka. I had never dived the reef before and made a descent to 18 meters. Visibility had deteriorated in the squall but upon approaching the bottom I began to discern a shape coming out of the murky green. As the curved arms and huge flukes became clear I realized it was a great anchor. The 1800’s style, its historically accurate geographical position and depth at 10 fathoms where it lay could mean only one thing and with it my heart began to race, I had discovered the anchor of the Port au Prince. Being the first person to lay eyes on it in two centuries was awe inspiring. It is still intact with one fluke now buried into the reef and all faces beautifully overgrown with encrusting life. We make regular historical dives on the site for those who are interested.

But what of the treasure? The anchor most probably lies where her cables were cut before the ship was hauled ashore. Artifacts and even treasure may still lie buried in the area but two centuries of growth may see it stay hidden forever. Each time we dive there I am always hoping to see a glint of light bouncing of the captain’s sword. Maybe next time!

Brian Heagney, Fins ‘n’ Flukes, Lifuka Island, Ha’apai, Kingdom of Tonga.

Fins 'n' flukes operate all year round in the warm waters of Ha'apai.  You will find their website at

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