The 19th century saw New Zealand’s most frequent and lethal maritime disasters. Drowning was so common in early colonial times that it was known as ‘the New Zealand death’. 1
Alongside the unpredictable climate, other factors contributed to the poor maritime safety record:
- The coastline was poorly charted. For example, when the Sophia Pate tried to enter Kaipara Harbour in 1841, the captain had three charts, each indicating a different channel to follow. He chose one, and the brig became stuck on a sand bank, resulting in the loss of 21 lives.
- Until the 1860s, navigation aids such as lights and lighthouses were almost non-existent.
- Ports were makeshift affairs. They were sometimes at river mouths with unpredictable sand or shingle bars, or exposed to storms in the open ocean.
- Sailing ships were more difficult to manage than the later powered vessels that appeared from the mid-1870s.
- Early colonial ships were wooden, which made them vulnerable to rocks and fire. The greatest maritime disaster in New Zealand history, if not in her waters, was the fire on the Cospatrick, which was bringing immigrants to New Zealand in 1874. A total of 470 people died, and only three survived.
- Skippers were not always well trained, and some had a habit of drunkenness. On New Year’s Day 1874, for example, while the immigrant ship Surat was leaking alarmingly, the intoxicated skipper threatened the 271 passengers with a revolver to prevent them hailing a passing ship. In this case, the ship beached, and no lives were lost.
- Smaller boats, especially harbour craft, did not always carry lifeboats.
- In the early years of European migration, Māori attacked some European ships in revenge for the newcomers’ flouting of local custom. The most famous of these attacks was on the Boyd in 1809 in Whangaroa Harbour. The crew were killed, and the ship was stripped and burned in return for bad treatment of a local chief during the voyage.
Some early New Zealand shipwrecks
The first New Zealand shipwreck recorded by Europeans was that of the sealing supply vessel Endeavour in 1795 in Fiordland’s Dusky Sound. The boat made it into harbour after crossing the Tasman Sea in a storm, but it was damaged and had to be run ashore.
The greatest wreck in New Zealand waters was that of HMS Orpheus on 7 February 1863 at the Manukau Bar, Auckland. Bringing naval stores across from Sydney, the captain entered the wrong channel when approaching the harbour. The ship stuck fast on a sandbar, and breaking waves destroyed her. Of the 259 naval officers and men aboard, 189 died, including the captain.
On 19 April 1865 a cargo of wool on the Fiery Star caught fire. The clipper was 240 kilometres north-west of the Chatham Islands, en route to London from Brisbane. After four days, the captain and 77 passengers took to lifeboats. They were never seen again. The chief officer and 17 crew members battled the fire on board for almost three weeks, until they were rescued 24 kilometres from the Coromandel coast. Half an hour later, the ship sank.
On 14 May 1866 the General Grant, sailing from Melbourne to London, hit cliffs on the west coast of the main island in the Auckland Islands and sank. Of the 83 people on board, only 15 survived. After nine months on Disappointment Island, four members of the crew set out in a small boat for Bluff – a 290-mile journey – to get help, but they were never seen again. Another person died on the island. The 10 remaining castaways were rescued by the brig Amherst after having survived 18 months on the subantarctic islands.
A daring rescue
Shipwrecks with large loss of life were widely reported in the colonial press. A story that captured public interest was Hūria Mātenga’s rescue of the crew of the Delaware, which ran onto rocks at Whakapuaka near Nelson in September 1863. Hūria first swam into the raging sea to pick up a lead thrown by the ship’s captain, and then she entered the surf again to help the crew ashore. Also helping with the rescue were her husband Hemi and three other men. All were saved and Hūria Mātenga became a national heroine.
The second greatest maritime tragedy in New Zealand waters occurred on 29–30 April 1881, when the steamer Tararua struck a reef at Waipapa Point, Southland, about a kilometre from shore. The ship was sailing from Port Chalmers to Melbourne. In all, 131 passengers and crew died, including 12 women and 14 children. Most were washed overboard and drowned while the rescuers were held back by high seas.
On 29 October 1894 the steamer Wairarapa, travelling in thick fog from Sydney to Auckland, slammed against cliffs on Great Barrier Island, about 90 kilometres north-east of Auckland. Although some lifeboats were launched, the seas swept other people to their death. In all, 101 of the 186 passengers and 20 of the 65 crew were lost.
There were several other 19th-century wrecks with significant loss of life:
- The Maria broke up on rocks near Wellington on 23 July 1851, with the loss of 26 lives.
- The paddle steamer City of Dunedin sank in Cook Strait in May 1865; 39 people died.
- On 14 February 1869, 20 people died when the fully rigged St Vincent was wrecked in Palliser Bay.
- The steamer Taiaroa struck rocks at the mouth of the Clarence River on 11 April 1886, and 34 people drowned.