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2013

Voyages and versions: remembering the Orpheus 150 years on

by Roy Clare - Friday, 8 February 2013

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.” CS Lewis

Whatipu - looking out to the Manukau Bar where the Orpheus sank taking 189 lives

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Standing on Whatipu Beach yesterday with colleagues from our museum and more than a hundred others, it seemed to me that CS Lewis had it about right. Commemorating the heart-rending loss of life on Manukau Bar 150 years ago, we were reminded of the many perspectives that surround daily life.

There is no dispute over the core facts: HMS ORPHEUS foundered in fair weather on 7 February 1863; 189 lives were lost or unaccounted for; the tragedy remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. But the circumstances are another matter.

In his speech yesterday, Taumata member Te Warena Taua reminded us that the ship was perceived by his people as a threatening force; nevertheless, courageous Maori made a major contribution to saving life, with recognition both in cash and in medals awarded by the Royal Humane Society.

Roy Clare, Director Auckland Museum, and Taumata member Te Warena Taua at the site of the Orpheus commemorations.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Another speaker narrated the role of the taniwha in shaping the coastline, with its treacherous sandbanks and ever-changing topography.

We heard about Commodore Burnett, in command of the ship, who perished and was later buried with military honours in the cemetery in Symonds Street (don’t look for his tomb, the motorway has displaced it); and of the young man ignored in the ship’s brig, Frederick Butler, the quartermaster who knew the bar and could see from his cell that the ship was on the wrong track. Despite centuries of tradition – if a ship grounds, the Captain takes the rap – Burnett escaped censure, with the Admiralty laying blame instead on local harbourmaster Edward Wing. The Royal Navy’s failure to acknowledge the navigational errors made by ORPHEUS remains a rankling echo of the Victorian empire’s capacity to patronise its colonies.

Meanwhile local Maori recollect that one day before the wreck a pakeha settler had felled a sacred puriri tree and used the wood for fence posts, an action that violated tapu and led to the disaster.

A news piece about yesterday’s commemorations, which ran on TV3's Nightline last night, captures some of the scale of the disaster, the lasting impacts of the tragedy and the fact the different versions of the story remain.

A photograph of the tomb of the late Commodore Burnett in Auckland. The tomb was sent to landfill when the Newton motorway was developed. Higginson Montagu 1863.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

Whatever the point of view, the huge loss of life that day 150 years ago was a human tragedy on a great scale. Many of those who perished were very young indeed (the average age for the entire crew was less than 23) and most from land-lubber backgrounds could not swim. We know that many sang the hymn ‘Abide with Me’ as they clung to the masts and bravely awaited their fate. We sang that yesterday, too, and said a prayer in memory of those lost and those who still mourn. Together with Murray Reade, CEO of Voyager Maritime Museum, I laid a wreath on behalf of both museums. The Coastguard took the wreaths out to the Bar a mile or so from the beach where we were gathered; as we sang ‘Abide by Me‘, the crew dropped them into the water where the Orpheus and so many of her complement were lost. Whatever the perspectives, we were all united around a single idea: to commemorate the lives of those lost on that fateful day in 1863 and to pause to reflect on their sacrifice.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Orpheus could also look into Auckland Museum’s collections – which features several items including a letter to the Caption of the Wonga Wonga, Captain Renner, who is credited with saving many lives of Orpheus crew and a photo of Renner – or read the fascinating first person accounts in the Papers Past online archives.

  • Post by: Roy Clare

    Roy Clare is the Director of Auckland War Memorial Museum. He came to New Zealand in 2011 from the United Kingdom where he was Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) from 2007. The MLA'’s responsibilities included the accreditation of Museums, the designation of outstanding collections and the administration of a range of schemes to develop the strength and reputation of collections, and encourage their accessibility to people.

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