The scene of a major British navy disaster

MANY of our reserves are beautifully-preserved time capsules that have remained largely unchanged over the decades, which contain some wonderful heritage values and history.

Blacksmiths Bay reserve in the Kerikeri Inlet is a prime example. Although some people think the reserve takes its name from a temporary camp set up by Captain Cook to replenish his ship on one of his voyages, the truth is actually far more interesting.

This year marks the 170th anniversary of a British Naval catastrophe that took place off the west coast of the North Island, and its link with this beautiful reserve, 10 minutes' drive from Kerikeri.

In 1845 HMS Osprey, an experimental Naval Brig of War, pulled into the sheltered bay and underwent a thorough overhaul. Under the command of Captain Frederick Patten, the crew undertook a partial refitting. Part of that involved setting up a forge, which actually gave Blacksmiths Bay its name.

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Over the course of 17 days, much of the ship's interior was taken apart and reassembled. The holds were cleared, ballast redistributed and the tanks emptied and refilled with clean water, so for a short time Blacksmiths Bay was a Royal Navy camp set up for the repair of a warship.

The Osprey was no ordinary vessel. In her day she was a state of the art warship, on the cutting edge of naval technology. Armed with 12 guns, she stretched more than 100 feet in length, and had two masts towering 120 feet above the deck.

Sleek, and in all ways impressive, it was no accident that the Osprey was in New Zealand waters. When she arrived in the Bay of Islands all that was left of Kororareka, now Russell, were charred remains following the attack on the town by Hone Heke and Kawiti, and its subsequent evacuation and shelling by HMS Hazard.

The Northern Wars ensued shortly after, and the Osprey was sent out as part of the British military response to what was becoming a rather troublesome time in this far-flung part of the Empire.

Fast, armed to the teeth and seriously pushing the boundaries of naval ship-building, the Osprey as a weapon of war was the equivalent of the Stealth bomber today, which makes the circumstances behind her demise all the more awkward.

Flying the flag

The Osprey arrived in New Zealand too late to be involved in any of the fighting associated with the Northern Wars, and it was decided that she should head north to 'fly the flag' instead. The voyage started well, with Captain Patten sailing into Whangaroa, where he briefly met Hone Heke, and continuing on to Mangonui.

A day or two later she rounded North Cape and headed south towards the Hokianga Harbour, sailing through haze, boisterous winds and drizzling rain. What happened next, however, was a series of blunders that were not in the best traditions of the Royal Navy.

Based on an observation taken by Patten, it was perceived that the Osprey had arrived at the mouth of the Hokianga, and the ship prepared to cross the bar and enter the harbour. In actual fact, she had arrived at the mouth of the Herekino Harbour, about 30km north of the Hokianga. The captain followed procedure of standing to in order to wait until the weather had cleared, then fired two guns as a signal to the pilot at Hokianga.

No answering signal came.

In filthy weather, the Osprey continued to hover outside what they were sure was the Hokianga. In the light of day, and with marginal improvement in the weather, the high, dark southern headland of the Herekino could be seen, though to all on board it looked like the Hokianga.

What happened next was a bit embarrassing. The captain recorded seeing a red flag on the misty southern headland, along with what he thought was a house where the Hokianga pilot should have been living, reinforcing everybody's assumption that the safety of the Hokianga lay only a brief crossing of the bar away.

Hazardous crossing

Press reports subsequently explained that the pilot's house was, in fact, a white spot on the cliff. The red flag, fluttering on the southern headland, indicated sufficient depth of water over the bar for a vessel to enter the harbour, though there was another explanation for the presence of the signal flag that they would later discover, and which no one on board could ever have anticipated.

Confident that they were in the right place, the captain steered the ship into harbour. The Osprey briefly touched ground, though this was assumed to be merely part of the excitement of crossing the Hokianga bar. What followed next, however, was a little more disconcerting.

Repeatedly, and with increasing violence, the Osprey struck ground. As the pride of the British Navy was hurled against immovable forces not far beneath the water's surface it began to dawn on the captain and crew that a terrible mistake had been made, and that far from entering the Hokianga, they were in fact heading into what was known to sailors experienced in west coast navigation as False Hokianga.

In desperation the crew of the superbly armed Osprey started rolling her big guns over the side to lighten the ship. Its proud 120-foot kauri spars were also cut away, but fell with sails set towards the shore.

The elements got hold of the Osprey and dragged her on to the beach, where her bow settled into wet sand while her stern received a thrashing from the wild wind and water. It was the Victorian Naval equivalent of Blackhawk Down.

One of the priorities was to safely land dry powder and guns so the captain and crew could defend themselves against what they feared might be Maori attackers. As it happened, about 150 "friendly Maoris," as they were described by later Press accounts, materialised soon after the ship ran aground and helped land the stores ashore.

With help from their Maori hosts and local missionaries, the captain and crew established a canvas 'town,' where they attempted to recover as much from the ship as possible. The ship's company were to spend seven and a half weeks on the beach.

A decoy?

Speculation about the red flag centred around the rangatira Pukeroa. It was an extremely tetchy subject among the British sailors, as it was thought that the flag might have been flown as a deliberate decoy in order to bring the ship to grief.

According to the book Ship on Shore, by Jane Foster, Pukeroa strongly denied this, highlighting the fact that the ship had not been attacked after running aground.

He asserted that he had merely copied the Hokianga pilot station's practice of flying a red flag in the spirit of 'keeping up with the Joneses'.

Surveying the steadily deteriorating hull of his ship, Captain Patten may have been tempted to believe otherwise.

A second, smaller ship, the Aurora, was dispatched to provide assistance and succour to the crew of the Osprey, though incredibly she met the same fate as the Osprey, being driven ashore by mad winds after her anchor chain snapped. The Aurora came to rest alongside the wreck of the very ship she was meant to assist.

Adding insult to injury, and compounding the black humour of the situation, there was nobody around when the Aurora made land, as the Osprey crew had already left, embarking on a gruelling, sodden tramp over rugged country south to the Hokianga and then on to the Bay of Islands.

Court martial

Following naval procedure, Captain Patten and senior crew members were summonsed to Portsmouth towards the end of 1846, where a court martial was held concerning the loss of the brig.

Patten read a prepared statement to the court that covered his hitherto unremarkable though perfectly adequate naval career, and outlined the issues he had been obliged to face, including the lack of accurate charts for the New Zealand coast, the confusing similarity between Hokianga and Herekino, plus the irksome presence of the red flag.

The court showed indulgence, acquitting him and his senior officers, and praising them for their conduct. In fact, Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, who led the court, was effusive in his final comments: "Commander Patten," he intoned, "I have much pleasure in returning you your sword, which you have so long worn with the greatest credit to yourself and advantage to Her Majesty's service."

The same grace was not, however, extended by Patten to three sailors who, having survived the shipwreck, and perhaps facing their own mortality, got roaring drunk.

In the midst of the task of picking desperately-needed supplies out of the surf for survival, Patten still had the presence of mind to administer floggings to each of the men for their lack of self-discipline.

The loss of one of Her Majesty's choicest ships, however, seems to have gone unpunished.

Blacksmiths Bay is a beautiful reserve, though not too many people are aware of the connection this place has to one of New Zealand's earliest naval disasters. Public reserves in Northland have multifaceted values.

Knowing the history of the Osprey gives the Blacksmiths Bay reserve, and indeed the Herekino Harbour, another dimension.