Priceless Japanese shipwreck relics recovered in the Northern Territory

An intricate Japanese dinner set is just one of many artefacts that have been recovered from Australia’s only known ship wreck of a Japanese pearling mothership.

The Sanyo Maru sunk off the coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory during a storm in 1937. Today, an archaeological expedition to excavate relics left behind on the wreckage returned to Darwin with new stories and insights into the lives of those on board the vessel.

“The expedition was a great success, uncovering some unexpected items and around 70 valuable artefacts,” said Maritime Archaeologist David Steinberg.

“For example, we found on a shelf a complete Japanese dinner set containing ceramic bowls and plates as well as fragile, intricate lacquered goods and wooden chopsticks which you can imagine were used by the ship’s captain as part of a traditional Japanese meal.

“These are not the types of things you would expect to find on a hard-working pearling ship.

“The excavation also recovered a lantern, a stoneware jar, beer bottles and saki bottles, as well as little comforts brought from home such as a stainless steel box containing grooming equipment such as a small hand held shaver.

“The information these items tell us about the Japanese maritime culture at the time is just priceless.”

The 36 metre long steel hulled Sanyo Maru was the pride of the Japanese pearling fleet when it sank during a storm in Boucaut Bay, 60 kilometres off Maningrida.

It’s long believed the ship sank because it was overloaded with cargo including 200 tonnes of mother of pearl, worth about 70,000 pounds, a small fortune at the time.

Of the 20 crew members on board the Sanyo Maru, two died when it sunk while a third died during the initial salvage.

The salvage attempt in the 1930s removed most of the precious cargo and the mother of pearl on board, but many personal belongings of crew members were left behind.

The week-long archaeological expedition was led by the Heritage Branch of the Northern Territory Government in conjunction with Tokai University in Japan and was supported by a $12,000 Australian Government grant from the Australia-Japan Foundation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, support from the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Energy Historic Shipwreck Program, as well as in-kind support from Bhagwan Marine Services and Paspaley Pearls.

James Paspaley, whose family pioneered Australia’s pearling industry in the 1930s, supported the project by donating Paspaley Pearls’ pearling mothership, the Nalena Bay, for the expedition.

Mr Paspaley, the Honorary Consul-General Japan for the NT, viewed the artefacts recovered today and said the Japanese pearling fleet played an important role in the history of Australia’s pearling industry.

“We are pleased to have the opportunity to assist with the archaeological expedition to the wreck of the Japanese fleet’s mothership, the Sanyo Maru,” he said.

“Most of the hardhat divers who worked in the Australian industry from the late 19th to mid-20th Centuries originated from the Japanese fleet. This expedition will ensure the Australian pearling industry’s rich history and its contribution to the development of northern Australia is not forgotten.”

The artefacts recovered from the Sanyo Maru will become part of the collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum following an extensive conservation process.

The wreckage of the Sanyo Maru is protected as an historic shipwreck under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act. There is exclusion zone around the wreck site and heavy fines apply for people entering the exclusion zone without permission.

Priceless Japanese shipwreck relics recovered in the Northern Territory