Tasmania sinks off Māhia with suitcase of jewels

29 July 1897

Jewels recovered from the Tasmania by Kelly Tarlton (Rosemary Tarlton/New Zealand Geographic)

On the afternoon of 28 July, the Huddart-Parker Co. steamer Tasmania left Auckland for Dunedin via Napier, Wellington and Lyttelton. At around 11 p.m. the following night, with a strong south-east gale blowing, the ship struck rocks off Table Cape, Māhia Peninsula.

Four lifeboats and two smaller boats were launched. Five boats landed safely, although a seaman and a passenger were lost overboard from one; when the sixth capsized, the nine crew members on board were drowned. The Tasmania sank within an hour of striking the rock.

The wreck of the Tasmania was in itself unremarkable in an era when maritime accidents were commonplace. However, one of the surviving passengers, jewellery merchant Isador Jonah Rothschild, had left in his cabin a suitcase full of jewels valued at £3000 ($600,000 today). After several unsuccessful attempts were made to retrieve the treasure, in 1973 marine archaeologist Kelly Tarlton purchased the right to salvage the jewels. Over the following years Tarlton recovered about 250 pieces, but he believed that more than half the jewellery was still in the ship.

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