LOST treasure. Sunken pirate ships. Every boy's dream is being lived right now in the clear blue waters off the island of Tonga.

Like the best comics and novels, the British privateer vessel Port-au-Prince was brimming with treasure when it was attacked and overwhelmed by Tongan warriors in 1806 - massacring most of its crew.

The Tongans salvaged iron and cannon from the ship, before king Finau 'Ulukalala II ordered it to be scuttled - mysteriously with its treasure still on board.

For centuries the vessel was thought to be lost until a local diver in the Ha'apai group of islandsrecently found wreckage that has features similar to the historic privateer.

Now, the treasure hunt has begun in earnest.

If the wreck proves to be the Port-au-Prince, the treasure was likely to still be intact, tourism ministry spokeswoman Sandra Fifita said. "It is believed that a considerable amount of copper, silver and gold is resting with the wreck, along with a number of silver candlesticks, incense pans, crucifixes and chalices," she said.

Ms Fifita said the wreck had copper cladding on its hull, which Britain's National Maritime Museum in Greenwich said meant it dated from 1780 to 1850, when such cladding was used to protect against shipworm and marine weeds.

Local divers are currently mapping the wreck for further study.

The Port-au-Prince was originally built in France but was captured by the British and set sail from London in 1805 as a privateer, a ship with permission to attack and plunder the vessels and possessions of Britain's rivals Spain and France.

After almost two years at sea, during which it raided Madrid's settlements in Peru and plundered Spanish ships, it planned to hunt whales migrating through the Pacific and made its way to Tonga, where it met its end.

A teenaged boy named William Mariner was part of the crew and survived the massacre, eventually becoming a favourite of the king and adopting the name Toki Ukamea, or Iron Axe.

He stayed in Tonga for about four years before travelling back to Britain on a passing ship, recounting his adventures to amateur anthropologist John Martin in "An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands".

The book remains one of the main sources for historians studying pre-Christian Tonga.

Resort owner Darren Rice, one of only two divers to have visited the site, was reluctant to reveal too much about the wreck's location, fearing an influx of treasure hunters.
"We want to make sure the area's properly mapped and everything that's found is photographed and documented," he said.

Asked if he believed there was a lost trove of pirate treasure on the sea floor, he replied: "If it's the Port-au-Prince, it's there. "It will be well and truly buried by now and it'll take a lot of work to get to it."

He said the wreck was located on a reef just off the island of Ha'ano in an area renowned for its rough seas. "There's very little left of the ship, it's been pounded by 4-5 metre swells for 200 years, so there's wreckage scattered all over the sea floor," he said. "If it's the Port-au-Prince then it's the most significant wreck in Tonga's history."

Mr Rice said conditions would be too rough for further dives until November or December and the first priority would be trying the verify that the Port-au-Prince's final resting place had been found.
"That's the most exciting thing to me, not the treasure," he said. "Only one ship of that era has ever gone missing in Ha'apai, so if it's not the Port-au-Prince, what is it?"

Source: www.heraldsun.com.au