New Zealand’s worst shipwreck

7 February 1863

Wreck of HMS Orpheus, Illustrated London News, 1863 (ATL, PUBL-0033-1863-437)

For the British it was the costliest day of the New Zealand Wars – but it occurred far from the battlefield. Bringing naval stores from Sydney, the modern 1706-ton steam corvette HMS Orpheus ran aground on the bar at the entrance to Auckland’s Manukau Harbour. Of the 259 naval officers, seamen and Royal Marines aboard, 189 died. In terms of lives lost, it remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. 

Minor errors and bad luck caused the disaster. Instead of rounding North Cape to reach Waitematā Harbour, Commodore William Burnett decided to berth at Onehunga in Manukau Harbour to save time. Unfortunately, he carried outdated charts and the channel through the bar had moved. Although lookouts on shore signalled a warning when they realised the ship was off course, the Orpheus missed the message.

After striking the bar, the vessel was pounded by waves and only one small boat got away. As the ship sank into the sand, the men climbed the rigging. The masts eventually collapsed, throwing the crew into the sea. Rescuers arrived too late to prevent a catastrophe.