Frequent maritime disasters were common around the dangerous coastline of New Zealand in the 19th century. Drowning was so common in early colonial times that it was known as ‘the New Zealand death’.  To add to the unpredictable climate, which paid a crucial role in the days of sailing ships, the coastline was poorly charted. For example, the captain of the Sophia Pate had three charts as he tried to enter Kaipara Harbour in 1841, each indicating a different channel to follow. The one he chose resulted in the brig ending up on a sand bank with the loss of 21 lives. The 165-ton Sophia Pate had been chartered by three Irish Wesleyan families to carry 23 settlers from Sydney, via Auckland, to the Kaipara district, where they planned to establish a settlement in the Kaihu Valley. Though the captain waited for favourable weather and sailed cautiously along a charted channel near South Head, the Sophia Pate ran aground. Within four hours, strong swells had broken the ship apart, destroyed the longboat and swept all but one of the immigrants, and the captain’s wife, overboard. At low water, Captain Harrison, his son, six crew members and one passenger reached the shore in the ship’s jolly boat (a rowing boat used at that time to ferry people from ship to shore).


Shipwrecks with large loss of life were widely reported in the colonial press. A story that captured public interest was Julia Martin’s (also known as Hūria Mātenga) involvement in a wreck rescue. She was the only female in a group of five who endangered their lives to rescue the crew of the brigantine Delaware, which ran onto rocks near Nelson in September 1863. Julia became known as “the Grace Darling of New Zealand” (Grace Darling was an English lighthouse keeper’s daughter who helped rescue survivors from the shipwrecked paddle steamer Forfarshire which ran aground in northeast England in 1838. Nine members of the crew were saved which brought her national fame.)

The Delaware left Nelson on the 3rd of September in a light easterly wind, but that night the ship was struck by gale-force winds and heavy rain. By morning the vessel had lost its jib and was in the lee of Pepin Island. Captain Robert Baldwin decided to let go the anchor but the cable broke. The second anchor was then let go, but the vessel continued drifting and it struck rocks about 650 feet (200m) from safety. The ship’s First Mate, Henry Squirrel attempted to swim ashore with a lead line that could be used to haul in a stronger cable along which the crew could scramble to shore. Unfortunately, he struck rocks when he dropped from the rigging into the sea. The crew managed to haul him back on board but he was barely conscious and they decided he was dying.

By this time local Māori realized the ship was in difficulties and hurried to the scene. Julia first swam into the raging sea to pick up a lead thrown by the ship’s captain. Her husband, Hemi, swam out to some rocks closer to the wreck and caught the lead line. Hemi and two mates then hauled the stronger cable to shore and anchored it to a large rock. In rough conditions Julia, Hemi, and another member of the rescue party went into the water repeatedly to help the crewmen who were crawling along the cable. Julia’s brother, Eraia, tried to keep the cable off the rocks, while another man lit a fire and took care of the ship’s crew as they arrived on shore.

All of the crew except Henry Squirrel made it to safety. The crew and captain believed he was dead and left him behind when they abandoned the ship. But about two hours later, Henry appeared on the deck of the ship and called for help. By this time the strong cable had been carried away. He tried to lash himself to the rigging until the tide fell, but he was washed overboard. The inquest found that the First Mate’s death was a case of accidental drowning.

Julia Martin/Hūria Mātenga became a New Zealand national heroine (but oddly, not the rest of the rescue team). Apart from saving lives at sea, she was an accomplished weaver and two of her woven items are in a collection at Wellington Museum.


Until the 1860s, navigation aids such as lights and lighthouses were almost non-existent. Ports were often located 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 powered vessels which arrived in New Zealand waters from the mid-1870s. Early colonial ships were also wooden, which made them vulnerable to destruction from rocks and fire. The greatest maritime disaster in New Zealand history, although not in NZ 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. (I’ve covered this tragic story in an earlier blog)

To increase the potential for disasters, skippers were not always well trained and an alarming number were often intoxicated at crucial times when a clear head was required for navigation. On New Year’s Day 1874, for example, while his immigrant ship Surat was leaking alarmingly, an inebriated Captain Johnson threatened the 271 passengers with a revolver to prevent them hailing a passing ship. Fortunately, the ship beached at the mouth of the Catlins River in South Otago, and no lives were lost. During this time in New Zealand’s maritime history, smaller coastal sailing craft did not usually carry lifeboats. In the early years of European migration, to add to the threats to ships and their passengers, Māoris occasionally attacked them in revenge for the newcomers’ flouting of local custom.


The most famous Maori attack was on the Boyd in December 1809. The sailing ship was anchored in Whangaroa Harbour, where it was to pick up a cargo of timber spars. A group of Māoris stormed the vessel and killed most of the crew and passengers. This was the most violent clash between Māori and Europeans since the attack on Marion du Fresne and his crew in 1772. During that incident, du Fresne and his French crew of 25 men were killed for some unknown reason.

Often referred to as the ‘Boyd Massacre’ or the ‘Burning of the Boyd’, the incident was dismissed as an act of Māori barbarism. Among the 70 people on the voyage from Sydney was Te Ara, the son of a Whangaroa chief. The young native had been expected to work his passage as a seaman, but he ignored orders. As the son of a chief he may have believed that such work was beneath him. Whatever his reasons, he was flogged and denied food. When he arrived home and reported this mistreatment, his tribe demanded revenge.

The Boyd attack delayed the establishment of the first Christian mission in New Zealand, which was then referred to as the ‘Cannibal Isles’. European whalers avenged the attack, killing many Māori and sparking intertribal warfare in the region. A year earlier, the crew of the Commerce had caused an outbreak of disease that killed a number of Māoris. They believed that a curse had been placed on them and viewed the European visitors on the Boyd with suspicion.


Unaware of local feelings, Thompson and several crew members left the Boyd with a group of Māori to check out a stand of kauri further up the harbour. Once ashore they were killed and eaten. At dusk some Māori disguised themselves as the returning shore party while other warriors waited in canoes for the signal to attack. The assault was swift and decisive. Most of the Europeans were killed that evening, although a number escaped by climbing up into the ship’s rigging.

The next morning a large canoe entered the harbour carrying Te Pahi, a prominent chief from the Bay of Islands who supported trade with Europeans and had visited Sydney in 1805. Shocked by what he found, he tried to rescue the frightened Europeans still clinging to the ship’s rigging. However, Te Ara’s relatives thought the matter none of Te Pahi’s business and killed most of the European survivors. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Europeans would later blame Te Pahi for the tragedy.

The Boyd was then towed up the harbour towards Te Ara’s village and grounded on mudflats near Red Island. The ship was pillaged of its cargo, with muskets and gunpowder being especially prized booty. During the pillaging a musket flint ignited the gunpowder on board, causing a massive explosion that killed a number of Māori, including Te Ara’s father. Fire soon spread to casks of inflammable whale oil, and the Boyd burned down to the waterline in a spectacular display of smoke and flame.


Several Europeans survived both the initial attack and its immediate aftermath. They included the ship’s cabin boy, Thom Davis, who was spared because he had tended to the young native after his flogging and had smuggled food to him. The second mate was put to work making fish-hooks from barrel hoops, but when he proved incompetent at this task he was killed and eaten.

Rumours of the incident reached the Bay of Islands, and three weeks later the City of Edinburgh arrived to investigate. Asked why they had attacked the ship, some of those involved said that the captain was a ‘bad man’. The whalers present blamed Te Pahi for the incident, even though the real perpetrators declared his innocence. Te Pahi’s pā was destroyed by the European sailors, with considerable loss of Māori life.

When Samuel Marsden arrived in 1814 to establish his church mission, tensions were still high. He invited chiefs from Whangaroa and the Bay of Islands aboard his ship, the Active, gave them gifts and asked them to ensure peace between their people. ‘Each chief saluted the other,’ Marsden wrote, ‘and then went around to each one pressing their noses together.’ They assured him that they would never harm another European.

Ceidrik Heward

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