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New Zealand’s worst shipwreck

7 February 1863

Wreck of HMS Orpheus, Illustrated London News, 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. 

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 Unfortunately, his charts were outdated and the channel through the bar had moved.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

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

How to cite this page

New Zealand’s worst shipwreck, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated