Orpheus sailors 'launched into eternity'

The mysteries still surrounding New Zealand's worst shipwreck 150 years ago will dominate next week's commemorations, writes Sarah Stuart.

The final resting place for three victims of the Orpheus disaster, a short distance from Cornwallis Beach. Photo / David White
The final resting place for three victims of the Orpheus disaster, a short distance from Cornwallis Beach. Photo / David White

The small wooden sign pointing along a gravel path can barely be seen from the road. But two minutes down, surrounded by bush and bird song, a white picket fence appears in the distance, circling a private reminder of one of the most polarising and mysterious tragedies in New Zealand's history.

Here lie the graves of three unknown sailors who drowned 150 years ago this week in the terrible wreck of the Orpheus, their bodies dragged from the murky waters of the Manukau Harbour below to rest on this isolated hill at Cornwallis on Auckland's west coast. These young men - some of the sailors were just 14 years old - died alongside 186 others on February 7, 1863, when in calm seas on a clear, sunny, early afternoon, their steam-and-sail navy ship struck the notorious sand bar at the Manukau Heads.

More than 100 men were clinging to the mast when it broke and sank after 8pm. Some said they gave three cheers as they crashed into the sea - others that their screams were those of men "being launched into eternity".

Bodies were scattered throughout the harbour and some hastily buried on beaches. Many were never recovered. Sixteen years after the wreck, the skeleton of shipman William Taylor washed up at Piha, north of the harbour entrance, his boots still on.

Five kilometres from the Cornwallis graves, the tiny Huia Settlers Museum is preparing for the Orpheus commemorations. Inside, trustee Lee Bullinga is pulling together the many artefacts: a teak canonball-holder, enormous copper nails, leg manacles from the two prisoners on board and objets d'art made from washed-up planks of the ship. "People scavenged for what they could get from the wreckage," says Bullinga. "Nothing was wasted in those days."

It is not just the enormous loss of life in what is still New Zealand's largest maritime tragedy that has kept the wreck of the Orpheus in the nation's imagination. There are still dozens of unanswered questions - myths of the as-yet unfound gold that went down with the ship; local iwi who believe the felling of a sacred puriri tree by Pakeha settlers the day before the wreck signalled the tragedy to come, and the deserters who many believe escaped from the water, making their way from Waiuku to the Waikato River, where they eventually settled in towns with new names and new lives.

Many have speculated that the ship was carrying supplies and troops for the Land Wars, a fiercely debated point, and one which will be touched on at a service at Onehunga's St Peter's church commemoration on Thursday.

But perhaps the most perplexing question is why the ship, which was carrying both a Navy commodore and a commander, took the wrong line into the harbour despite warnings from the signal station.

One man on board had been through the treacherous entrance before - but he was a deserter and, according to reports from survivors, he wasn't listened to. Instead, the British put the blame squarely on signal-station master Captain Thomas Wing and his son Edward, who were both on duty that day.

"The Orpheus was akin to the Tangiwai and Erebus disasters in terms of the scale of the tragedy," says Barbara, Lady Harvey, the great-great-great granddaughter of Thomas Wing. She and husband Sir Bob Harvey will be a major part of next week's commemorations, as will other descendants of survivors and rescuers from the event. "There were so many young men killed and they were on that ship, unable to swim. Most had come from lives of abject poverty."

The wreck may also have changed the course of history for Auckland. The Orpheus was due to come into the Waitemata Harbour from its Sydney departure point, but the commodore was said to be running late for a meeting with the governor of the colony so chose to pull in at Onehunga instead.

"Manukau Harbour after the shipwreck was seen to be no longer useful to the city," says Bridget Graham, co-ordinator of Orpheus activities. "Before that, Onehunga was a busy port as it was seen as the main route south, and ships would leave for New Plymouth. After this they had to find another way south." The result was increased focus on the then-fledgling Great South Rd.

The figurehead of the Orpheus has never been found, though there are stories of people claiming to have seen it in the Kaipara and Manukau harbours. But perhaps the real reason for the enduring fascination with this most terrible of shipwrecks is the location itself. Wild, untamable Whatipu beach at the Manukau Heads is one of the city's loneliest and loveliest places.

When the wind howls here it is as if the voices of those men atop the mast, waiting to die, can be heard clearly with the screaming of the gulls.

As Lady Harvey will read from an old, anonymous poem on February 7: "O weep then for the brave / the gallant firm and true / Who sleep beneath the wave / On the Bar of the Manukau".

- Herald on Sunday

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