Today marks 150 years since the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Australian squadron sank off the entrance to the Manukau harbour. It was a beautiful sunny day but there was a hidden danger lurking beneath the waves. At about 1:30pm the Orpheus hit a submerged sand bar. Of the 259 crew only 70 would survive, the rest were claimed by the sea.The sinking of the Orpheus remains New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster. In fact in terms of lives lost, according to Wikipedia only the 1931 Hawkes Bay Earthquake and 1979 Erebus disaster took a higher toll (this excludes epidemics and acts of war). There are plenty of fantastic sites to visit to read more about the story of the sinking – check out this site, the Wikipedia page and this dramatic painting.
The 150th anniversary is going to be commemorated in a number of ways, starting today. Check out the details here, (along with Caroline Fitzgerald’s fascinating personal link to the wreck).
To mark the anniversary I had a look through some of the old newspapers to see if there was an article that might be worth republishing – then I had a thought. This wasn’t just a New Zealand disaster, sure the ship sank here but it was the flagship of the Australian squadron and surely that makes it an Australian disaster as much as a New Zealand one. So I changed tack and started looking across the Tasman.
While reading through Australian newspaper reports from the time I stumbled across a poem dedicated to the tragedy. It seems a fitting tribute to mark the 150th anniversary.
THE WRECK OF THE ORPHEUS.
The busy marts of Sydney
Look gloomily to-day ;
A cloud seems brooding on the shore
A shadow o’er the bay ;
And ev’ry brow is darken’d
And pale is ev’ry cheek
As shudd’ring hearers catch the words
Of those who dread to speak.
And well may pulses flutter,
And well may cheeks grow pale ; The whisper’d tidings of the hour
Might bid the sternest quail.
They tell of ripen’d manhood,
Of youth in early bloom
Of pious zeal, and valour’s fire
O’erwhelm’d by sudden doom. Of friends whom late we greeted
But ne’er may greet again —
Of twice fourscore true British hearts
All cold beneath the main !
How gaily speeds the good ship !
Along the sunlit sea !
The wave-swept bar of Manukau
Lies broad upon her lee —
Behind it spreads her haven ;
The matter, chart in hand
Thro’ channels mark’d in other years,
Heads inward for the land.
But woe betide the falsa chart
That told its tale amiss,
And made the truth of other days
The meeking lie of this !
And woe betide the false breeze,
That blew so fresh and light,
Yet urged the long green billows on Before its voice of might —
And woe betide the false sea
That smiled but to betray,
And told not where the fatal bank
Lay ambush’d on the way.
One shock — as when the earthquake
Upheaves a groaning land —
Her stern hangs wavering in the surge,
Her bows are deep in sand.
Back — back the lab’ring engines !
The huge steam-giants fail
To move her ‘gainst the mighty swell
That rolls before the gale.
Alas ! the gallant Orpheus !
She lies a prostrate wreck :
The surges climb her lofty side
And thund’ring sweep the deck.
But not a British seaman
In that dread moment quail’d, Nor waver’d ancient discipline,
Nor duty’s impulse fail’d.
Each took his post of danger
As prompt as on parade ;
Each signal, tho’ at cost of life, Was fearlessly obey’d.
The boats were manned in silence ;
No voice from high or low
Repined or question’d at the word
That bade them stay or go.
The launch has fill’d and founder’d
With all her noble crew —
Hurrah ! for those two happier barks
That yet shall save their few. Away they speed for succour ;
Hope gleams, but Fate is nigh ; The few go forth to toil in vain, The many wait — to die.
The weary hours crept onward
The waves broke fierce and fast ;
And fainter waxed the hands, that clung
By slipp’ry shroud or mast. Yet ere the good ship parted
A ringing, pealing cry,
The voice of souls that knew not fear
Went up from sea to sky.
A shout, as when our foemen
Disheartened in the fray
Before the shock of British steel
Recoil and shrink away.
Then spoke the gallant Burnett —
No meaner voice was heard —
” God’s mercy on our parting souls !”
So rang the latest word.
And he who heard and tells it,
In fancy long shall hear
Dim echoes of that proud farewell,
That thrice-repeated cheer.
Then came an awful silence,
A hush as of the grave,
Save one deep tone — the ocean’s moan,
Above the dying brave.
Without one shriek or murmur,
As men who ” fall on sleep,”
They gave their spirits up to God,
Their bodies to the deep.
It is not when our squadrons
In furious onset close,
When man to man and foot to foot
They mingle with their foes,
When rolls the deaf’ning volley
And war-clouds dim the air — It is not then that best is known
What British hearts can dare. For then the lust of combat
That lurks in ev’ry breast,
The tiger-instinct of our kind
Is raging unrepress’d.
And friends are nigh, to cheer us,
And foes to taunt our flight —
He scarce were man, who shrank from Death
Amid the press of fight.
But when the King of Terrors
Comes slowly, stride by stride,
The valiant front the stern advance,
The feeble blench aside.
And they are more than victors
In worse than battle’s strife
Who swerve no step from Duty’s path
Altho’ the bribe be life.
We cannot choose but sorrow,
Tho’ trembling Faith suggest There is a Lord of life and death
And what He wills is best.
We cannot choose but sorrow —
A nation’s tears must flow,
And yearnings deep of kindred love
Outlast the publio woe.
But Time shall bring to anguish
A sure tho’ slow relief,
And mellow into soft regrets
The bitter wine of grief.
Then many a British mourner
With tearful pride shall tell
Of trophies in an unfought field
Of valour proved too well. The heroes of the Orpheus
Shall have their meed of fame, Wherever floats the British flag,
Or sounds the British name.
I, too, would twine a garland
Of simple, fading flowers,
And lay it humbly on the tomb
Of those whose fame is ours :
Who own’d no selfish murmur,
Who drew no coward breath ;
To Honor, Faith, and Duty true,
Tho’ “face to face with Death.”
This was originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24th February 1863. Sourced from ‘Trove’, the Australian National Library.
© Lemuel Lyes