Colourful past of Otago's 'pirate ship'

Don Juan at anchor in Port Chalmers about 1875, before being broken up and left to rot at Deborah...
Don Juan at anchor in Port Chalmers about 1875, before being broken up and left to rot at Deborah Bay. Photo from Port Chalmers Maritime Collection.
One of two cannons, believed to be from Don Juan, in storage at the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum...
One of two cannons, believed to be from Don Juan, in storage at the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
A depiction of Don Juan in her glory days, making sail during a 40-year career that took her from...
A depiction of Don Juan in her glory days, making sail during a 40-year career that took her from Sweden, to South America, the Pacific and, finally, Otago Harbour. Image supplied.
The rotting timber spine poking from the water marks the final resting place of Don Juan. Photo...
The rotting timber spine poking from the water marks the final resting place of Don Juan. Photo by Chris Morris.
Historian and author Norman Ledgerwood says the story of Don Juan deserves to be remembered....
Historian and author Norman Ledgerwood says the story of Don Juan deserves to be remembered. Photo by Gregor Richardson.

Is there a pirate ship hidden beneath the waves in Otago Harbour? Reporter Chris Morris goes in search of a buried treasure.

Otago Harbour gives up one of its secrets at low tide.

As the blanket of water rolls back, pieces of rotting timber break the surface in a quiet corner of Deborah Bay. The wooden fragments stretch from the shore out into deeper water, forming the fossil-like spine of a once powerful-looking ship.

It is all that is left of Don Juan - a three-masted sailing vessel with four names and a dark past that stretches back 150 years.

Its voyages took it from Sweden to South America and across the Pacific, before it found its final resting place in Otago Harbour in 1900.

Photos taken before its demise show a dark-hulled, sinister-looking ship at anchor at Port Chalmers, before ship-breakers at Deborah Bay went to work.

It has been lying in a few feet of water ever since, slowly disappearing into the mud, and is now all but hidden with each incoming tide.

But the wreck remains a familiar childhood playground for Norman Ledgerwood (77).

A local historian, he grew up in Deborah Bay and still remembers wading out to the old ship's remains and clambering through its exposed wooden ribs.

Back then, it was one wreck among many scattered prominently along the shoreline between Deborah Bay and nearby Careys Bay, he said.

On a recent visit to the site with the Otago Daily Times, he marvelled at how little of the ship remained after so many years.

''There's not much of it left now. There was a hell of a lot more there when I was a kid.

''It was just part of the scenery,'' he said.

But, when he and other children clambered over it all those years ago, they knew little of the ship's story, he said.

Little, that is, except for the ''general myth'' that surrounded it at the time - stories of Spanish gold and cannons, shackles that held a human cargo and an alleged link to piracy.

The piracy claim was repeated by some historians, disputed by others and recorded as fact on a plaque adorning the Flagstaff monument overlooking Port Chalmers.

The plaque mapped the harbour and its features, including the final resting place of Don Juan, which it described as a ''Spanish slaver and pirate''.

Mr Ledgerwood said much of the ship's dark past was real enough, but the story of its links to piracy was ''a bit of romanticism''.

It had evolved from a blank period in the ship's records during the 1860s - lasting nearly a decade - while the vessel was in South American waters.

The ship did not re-emerge on public records until the late 1860s, giving rise to speculation about where it had been, he said.

''It's guessing - there's no specific evidence,'' he said.

However, Peter Cole, a Port Chalmers tour guide and community board member, was less certain. Reports from the time suggested the ship had been fitted with gun ports and cannons and grooves worn into the ship's deck indicated they had been fired - repeatedly, he said.

Spanish gold coins had also been found with the ship's remains years after it was dismantled, although their fate was not known.

However, two cannons - said to have been taken from the ship - can now be found under tarpaulins inside the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum.

The cannons, the gold coins and Don Juan's missing years in South American waters all raised questions, Mr Cole believed.

''It was probably involved in something ... you can come to your own conclusions. It went to South America. What was it doing there at that time?''It is a theory that has been canvassed more than once.

In the 1948 book Port Chalmers - Gateway to Otago, author H.

O. Bowman described Don Juan as a ''Spanish slave ship, possibly pirate, honest trader, sail loft and hulk, although her latter peaceful life could hardly have atoned for the evil history of her prime''.

The book recorded that an old shipwright had found her decks were ''pierced for guns, and this led to the surmise that the ship had possibly also a career in piracy, but of this there has been no positive confirmation''.

The discovery of gold coins had ''led to much further speculation, which, however, ended where it began'', it read.

''Now she lives at Deborah Bay, a visible stimulus to romantic speculation as to her past.''

However, the late historian Ian Church, writing in the Otago Daily Times in 1989, dismissed the more outlandish stories of the ship's past as ''romantic speculations''.

Drawing on detailed public records, he retraced its movements in an account of its history.

Don Juan was launched in Sweden in 1857, named Daniel Elfstrand Pehrsson, Mr Church wrote. It was involved initially in the guano trade, but was sold after arriving in Chilean seaport of Valparaiso damaged and leaking badly.

Its name was changed to Elcira Subercaseaux, but it then disappeared from public records for ''seven or eight years'', he wrote.

There were ''unconfirmed stories'' it was a Peruvian blockade runner and transported ''thousands'' of Chinese coolies to dig guano from Peru's Chincha Islands.

In the Pacific, it was also linked to the enslavement of Pacific Islanders - coerced, sometimes forcibly, into contracts to work abroad - in a trade known as ''blackbirding''.

The islanders were taken to locations as far away as Peru and Australia, and Don Juan's role in the trade was mentioned by a captain once asked to take command of her, Mr Church wrote.

The captain, Christopher Welch, later retired to Careys Bay, where he recounted his decision to refuse the command after learning the ship was to go blackbirding in the Pacific, Mr Church wrote.

He also said it had once collected Chinese workers recruited to work in tea plantations in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, only to drop them on an Indian Ocean island instead, Mr Church wrote.

There, the labourers were forced to dig and load guano before being abandoned on the island, the captain claimed.

Whatever the truth behind the stories, Elcira Subercaseaux eventually re-emerged on public records in the Chilean port of Valparaiso in 1868 under another name, Don Juan.

Its subsequent career could be traced with more certainty, he wrote.

Back in Valparaiso, it was sold again, renamed Rosalia, and put to work carrying contracted labourers on three-month, 14,000km trips from China to coastal plantations in Peru, public records showed.

Glowing accounts of the care afforded the recruits while on board ship had been published, but the reality was the recruitment and shipment process was ''rife'' with corruption, he wrote.

And, while many workers signed contracts before boarding ships like Rosalia, others were subjected to violence and forced to work, accounts showed.

Some of the Chinese labourers had been known to rebel against poor conditions and seize control of ships or set them on fire. Rosalia's owners had taken steps to avoid a repeat, including fitting a wooden barrier amidships, beyond which the workers were not permitted.

The crew were armed with muskets, bayonets, swords and other weapons, and two cannons were aimed at the only two barred doors through the barrier.

At night, the Chinese workers were shut in the hold and armed sentries posted outside, Mr Church wrote.

Some evidence of the measures taken to protect the ship was found when it eventually arrived at Port Chalmers and, later, when being dismantled at Deborah Bay, he wrote.

Black and white photographs of it at anchor in Port Chalmers showed no sign of gun ports, but a seaman who boarded it later recorded it had been ''pierced for guns on the main deck'', he said.

Leg irons and manacles used to restrain ''recalcitrant coolies'' were also found below decks during dismantling, and could now be found in the Port Chalmers Maritime Museum.

In 1874, Rosalia's final journey to Dunedin began when it was bought by Walter Guthrie, of Dunedin timber firm Guthrie and Larnach.

It arrived in Napier carrying a load of timber on October 22, after a fraught journey, during which the ship's leaks increased, exhausting the crew as they struggled to pump out the water.

Ten crew were sentenced to imprisonment or hard labour after refusing to continue south in what had become a ''coffin ship'', Mr Church wrote.

Despite that, Rosalia was surveyed and cleared to continue, and arrived in Port Chalmers - still leaking badly - on November 22.

It was put up for sale again and bought by Port Chalmers-based ships' chandlers who reinstated the former name, Don Juan.

The new owners planned to sail it to Sydney for extensive repairs, but were refused clearance to leave before another survey to determine the ship's condition.

The owners ignored that, but their attempt to leave was thwarted by heavy weather at the entrance to Otago Harbour.

Back at Port Chalmers, the survey found rotten and worm-eaten timbers and other faults, and, after a legal tussle, Don Juan was condemned as ''totally unseaworthy''.

An Otago Daily Times editorial strongly agreed with the decision, writing at the time: ''Murder is an ugly word to us but it is difficult to take any other to describe the inequity of sending such a vessel as the Don Juan to sea.''

In 1876, Don Juan was sold at auction to the fledgling Union Steam Ship Company, which used the hulk as a floating workshop and worksheds were later built over the hull, Mr Church wrote.

When eventually no longer required, it was auctioned again in 1900, bought by a local fisherman, and grounded in Deborah Bay.

Cutting up the hull revealed the leg irons, manacles and Spanish gold coins, beginning the ''romantic speculation'' that would continue to follow the story.

''But the Don Juan's story does not need such embellishments,'' Mr Church wrote.

''Her involvement in the Chinese labour traffic and the stir she created as a coffin ship speak eloquently of man's inhumanity to man and remind us of the efforts that successfully ended such abuses.''

The details of the story may have been lost forever, but for Mr Church and Swedish historian Ingvar Henricson, who together traced the ship's history in 1989, Dunedin maritime historian Ian Farquhar said.

Mr Henricson was born in Galve, where the ship was built, and contacted the Otago Maritime Society while following up on a reported sighting of the vessel in Otago Harbour in 1883.

No record of the ship visiting Dunedin under its original Swedish name, Daniel Elfstrand Pehrsson, could be found.

However, Don Juan's remains were eventually linked to the Daniel Elfstrand Pehrsson by comparing the two ships' dimensions and searching the records.

That eventually led Mr Church to a hand-written note, scrawled on the records of Don Juan, under its former name Rosalia, in 1875.

The note mentioned the ship's bell was inscribed with the vessel's original name, Daniel Elfstrand Pehrsson, tying the two together.

In 2011, Mr Henricson visited Dunedin, rolled up his trousers and waded out to say a ''final farewell'' to the old ship's remains, Mr Farquhar said.

And, whatever the truth behind the tales of piracy, those spoken to agreed Don Juan's story was worth remembering.

Mr Cole was talking to Dunedin City Council staff about installing plaques to tell the story of the ship and other historic remains scattered between Port Chalmers and Deborah Bay.

Mr Ledgerwood agreed a permanent reminder was needed before the last traces of its presence disappeared.

''In time, the thing will disappear naturally, because it is timber and it's slowly, slowly getting broken up and eaten away.

''It is all part of our history.''


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