New Zealand’s worst maritime and naval disaster was the sinking of HMS Orpheus on 7 February 1863. Of the 259 officers and ratings aboard, only 76 survived and only 22 bodies were recovered.
In 2013 we will be commemorating the worst maritime and naval disaster in New Zealand’s history, the loss of HMS Orpheus, the Flagship of the Australian Station on 7 February 1863.
In early 1863, the colony of New Zealand was asking for naval support. The Colonial Office did meet some requests, especially where there seemed little harm in doing so, if only to assuage the bothersome Governor. One such occasion involved the posting of the Commodore of the Australian Station of the Royal Navy in New Zealand.
On 1 February, The Commodore of the Australia Station, William Fraquharson Burnett in command, sailed for Auckland to consult with the Governor in the new steam corvette HMS Orpheus. On the morning of 7 February, Orpheus approached the Manukau Harbour. The signal station ordered the ship to go north and enter the channel. However, the vessel did not respond. That was because the Commodore Burnett had not visited the Manukau before and was relying on a chart from 1853. The channel marked on his chart had shifted north. The only man aboard ship that knew the harbour was in the brig for desertion. Realising his mistake, Burnett ordered the man brought up and he pointed out the correct entrance. Burnett ordered the ship to be brought to starboard but to was too late and the ship struck the bar slewing around to broadside on the sea.
Stuck fast, she was pounded by the sea. A ship’s boat was launched with 40 men but swamped and all were drowned. By this time the men were in the rigging hanging on. They were heard singing and cheering in a effort to keep spirits up. The ship’s boat that went to shore carrying the valuables and returned to help rescue the survivors along with Maori canoes and a ship’s boat from the steamer Wonga. The canoes and boats could only get within 50m of the ship. This meant that only those strong swimmers were able to be saved. Many drowned trying to reach safety. Most of the ship’s company remained in the rigging. Commodore Burnett was on the mainmast with his officers. As night fell the masts collapsed taking the men with them into the sea where they drowned. Commodore Burnett was seen to drown after being hit by a spar.
Of the 259 officers and ratings aboard, only 76 survived. Only 22 bodies were recovered. The man who was brought up from the brig survived. Commodore Burnett, Chief Boatswain John Pascoe, Assistant Master W.J. Taylor, and an unidentified Cook are buried in the Symonds Street Cemetery. The Chaplain Charles Haslewood is buried at St Peter’s Church cemetery in Onehunga. Three unidentified Midshipmen are buried at the common grave located on Cornwallis Wharf Road.
An inquiry held in April 1863 found that the loss was due to the shift nature of the Manukau Bar. No blame was given to Commodore Burnett or the ship’s company. However, that may have been a different outcome had he survived. Commendations were awarded for the men who attempted to rescue their fellow men in the boats. The enquiry found that the loss of HMS Orpheus was a tragedy but it:
had shown how British seamen could face death with that gallant chivalrous fortitude for which they are proverbial, and which would be held up as an example for others in later days.
 77m in length, 1733 tonnes, a complement of 259 officers and ratings. She was armed with 20 8-inch guns.
 Hugh Edwards, Australian and New Zealand Shipwrecks & Sea Tragedies, Milson’s Point: Phillip Mathews Publishers, 1978, pp.90-92.