Tuesday, August 23, 2005


A hunt for Tongan treasure


August 21, 2005

Civil servants in Tonga are entering the fifth week of a strike for better pay.

They want a better deal - a share of the wealth their royal family enjoys.

But what if the king's wealth were far greater than the average Tongan suspects? What if his majesty's fortune extended to bank accounts containing hundreds of millions of dollars and the source was a pirate ship?

According to official documents belonging to the king and obtained by TVNZ's Sunday programme, which have been secret until now, there may be truth to those stories.

The documents say the king of Tonga searched for gold bullion in the seas off the islands of Ha'apai.

Some say he found the treasure and seized the gold for himself.

British archives from 1806 show the crew of a pirate ship called the Port au Prince set out to hunt whales and plunder Spanish shipping in the South Pacific and The Americas.

It anchored for the last time half a mile off the beach at Faka'amumei on Ha'apai.

The locals say their ancestors attacked the Port au Prince, burned her to the water line and looted the ship.

The wreck has vanished. The contents of the hold are gone, but the story of the gold is alive and well and causing trouble in the kingdom of Tonga.

Local historian Monitiveti Liuaki has heard the stories of the ship all his life.

He knows of at least three expeditions to find the gold thought to remain on the seabed in a rapidly disintegrating wreck.

But Monitiveti claims no-one recovered the treasure.

According to the documents Sunday obtained in 1972, early in King Taufa'ahau IVs reign, he and his officials authorised a search for gold.

Their treasure seeker was an enigmatic businessman called Charlie Onodera.

A permit from the Governor of Ha'apai, backed up by a letter bearing the king's seal and the signature of his secretary, empowered Onodera to lead the search.

At the time, the documents say that the gold was worth $US30 - $US100 million - today it could be worth nearly $300 million.

Tonga's leading political dissident 'Akilisi Pohiva has also been on the trail of Onodera and the gold for many years.

"It is unusual, it is very unusual for someone from outside to have a picture, a photo together with the king, maybe three different photos," Pohiva says.

The pictures he is talking about were hidden away in a safe with documents allegedly detailing Onodera's business dealings with the king.

Onodera died a decade ago and until recently the palace denied any link from him to the king.

But Sunday has revealed that he had been taken on as the king's trusted representative, that he'd enjoyed privileged access to the king and been given a Tongan diplomatic passport for his travels.

But the most stunning claim - in a series of letters to Onodera - is that the king had acquired far greater personal wealth than he admits to.

The letters span five years and describe funds in bank accounts in London, New York and Frankfurt.

Onodera was authorised to invest hundreds of millions of dollars.

Remember Onodera was the man authorised to lead the searches for gold.

So what did he find? And could that lie behind all those zeroes on the palace letterhead?

Sunday sought answers from the royals to no avail.

Unsurprisingly they are well guarded and the authorities are on edge - these claims have surfaced once before.

Just talking about the letters can get you in trouble.

'Akilisi Pohiva obtained just one of the letters Sunday accessed, published the contents and wound up in court charged with sedition and inciting rebellion.

He says he has no doubt that all the documents were produced within the palace office.

A jury acquitted Pohiva, his son and a fellow MP, 'Isileli Pulu after a palace official confirmed the letter was real, though he claimed the king had no knowledge of it.

The king then made a rare public address denying he had hundreds of millions of dollars in overseas banks.

Getting people in Tonga to talk about treasure is almost as hard as the search for the gold itself.
The trail has been well covered by time and by fear that any who speak out expose themselves to royal wrath.

One man, who was reluctant to speak to Sunday, said there had been two diving attempts on the wreck to his knowledge - one by a New Zealand team and later by the king's man Charlie Onodera.

Sunday were pointed in the direction of Tuakalau Fukofuka, who was hired by a Tongan sea captain and Charlie Onodera as a diver.

"He (the sea captain) told us there was gold... He and Onodera had some but the bulk of it had not been recovered from the bottom of the ocean that's what he told me," Fukofuka says.

But the diver says the government was losing interest in paying for the search.

"He found other Tongans to try to remove it and they managed to get one and a half container loads and Onodera shipped that to Fiji and there was money which they received from it... a lot of money was received, but the exact amount is never known."

Fukofuka says the rest of the gold is still at the bottom of the sea.

The Sunday investigation comes at a time of great unrest in the kingdom of Tonga.

Civil servants have spent the last four weeks protesting at low pay.

Ten thousand people have taken to the streets demanding pay rises of at least 70% for the workers.

Violence and vandalism against government property this week shows that tensions have reached a worrying level.

The protesters believe the king has greedy sons, they believe he has let foreign con men cheat him and they are willing to believe the story of the gold that the king has kept for himself - a prize worth perhaps milliions - while they are marching for enough money to live on.

Tonga's king is facing the greatest challenge his rule has ever seen.

For three years 'Akilisi Pohiva has been calling for an investigation, one that could clear the king's name or flush out the wealth.

But, despite the pile of evidence and questions about gold and Charlie Onodera, the palace is fighting it all - as well as the anger on the streets - with nothing but silence.

That used to work in Tonga, but maybe the tide is turning?


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