The ORPHEUS disaster is often called ‘New Zealand’s worst sea disaster’. Although the WAHINE disaster would be New Zealand’s most famous shipwreck, the ORPHEUS was the greatest loss of life. Out of the 259 men assumed to be aboard, 189 lost their lives.
It happened on the 7 February 1863 on the Manukau Bar, on the west coast of Auckland.
Commodore Burnett was the senior officer in charge of the ship. He was travelling to New Zealand for the first time, to meet with Governor George Grey.
Captain Burnett and the HMS ORPHEUS approached the Manukau Bar, one of the most treacherous stretches of water in New Zealand, at about 11.30 am on the 7 February 1863. The ship carried a chart dated 1860, and a set of sailing instructions dated 11 October 1861. It was later revealed that the bar had shifted three-quarters of a mile since the chart had been made. The old chart would have been adequate if used in conjunction with up-to-date sailing instructions, but it was not.
Only one third of the bodies were found and buried. Bodies were washed up as far north as North Kaipara Head but most were in the general vicinity of the Manukau Bar. Some skeletons were found in 1879.
Wreckage from the ORPHEUS was also found far and wide, mostly north of the harbour entrance. The mast (now in the Huia Settlers Museum) was found near Helensville on the Kaipara Harbour.
Timber from the wreckage was used by a local resident to build a whole vessel, the steamer HALCYION. And various pieces of wood retrieved from the beach have been used to create a variety of small pieces, including furniture, walking sticks, and small boxes.
The New Zealand Maritime Museum has several items on display that are believed to have come from ORPHEUS, including the ship’s figurehead, a deck skylight window and a wooden plaque.