On Monday, July 25 the Temecula Valley Museum and the Temecula Valley Historical Society will co-host a presentation by Captain Robert S. Wells (ret.) titled “Voices from the South China Sea.” The program will begin at 6 PM in the conference room at the Temecula Civic Center. Captain Wells retired following a distinguished 30-year career with the US Navy. Wells later served in the White House under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. It was during this period that Wells uncovered the story of a maritime disaster that occurred in 1874 in the South China Sea.
The disaster took place during the 1870s when thousands of Chinese emigrants were coming to America to work in mines, on railroads, and as farm workers. At midnight on December 17, 1874 fire broke out onboard the steamship S.S. Japan which quickly enveloped the all wooden ship just hours before its scheduled arrival in Hong Kong where more than 400 Chinese workers were to be reunited with their families. The S.S. Japan was one of four large side-wheel steamers commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln as part of his plan to expand trade with China. The ship was on its 25th voyage from San Francisco to Hong Kong with a total of 537 souls on board including 128 crew members and 423 Chinese passengers when disaster struck. Once fire broke out, the ship quickly burned to the waterline, broke in two, and sank to the bottom. The fire cut off access to lifeboats. Many of the Chinese nationals drowned when they were forced to jump into the sea and were dragged down by the weight of their money belts which were filled with gold coin earned during years spent laboring in America. A salvage effort was launched in 1875 which resulted in the recovery of $360,000 in newly minted U.S. trade dollars. The ship’s safe, the private savings of passengers, and an untold number of cargo chests remain unrecovered to this day.
Copies of Wells’ book, “Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea” will be available for sale at the end of his presentation. There will be no charge for admission to this event. An evening social with refreshments will begin at 5:30 PM.
For more information, please call the Temecula Valley Museum at (951) 694-6450