Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A shipwreck confusion: the "Posthumus" and the "Helena", September 1853

Over the course of two issues in the New Zealander newspaper, 16 and 19 February 1859, a correspondent recorded what a trip was like out to West Auckland and the about-to-be-named Parish of Waitakere on the West Coast.

“The beach of Waitakeri Bay, rock-bound as it is, is one of the best we know for a watering-place – as smooth and soft as a planed floor. The sea comes in (with a West wind especially) with a heavy, yet not unpleasant surge and, the ledges of rocks every here and there, form themselves into very sheltered and safe bathing salles in every one of the bays formed as this part of the coast by headlands. The caves are eminently attractive – two of them being about a hundred yards long, and proportionately wide and high. In the largest, as the Maoris are proud of telling, their progenitors used to make their abode, and the floors of both are strewed with gigantic sea-weed springing from heavy blocks of conglomerate, which have been torn from the ocean’s bed and washed up into these caves by the fierce-surging waves carried far in-shore by the Western gales. In the close vicinity of the largest cave, there is to be seen a huge volcanic dyke, upheaved by subterranean action, and without the slightest break, through the close-gritted conglomerated headland.”

In both parts of the article, reference was made to the wreck of the Posthumus:

“At the Northern end of the first bay, close to where the “top-layer”, so to speak, of the once-deep Waitakeri struggles through the magnetic iron-sand to join the sea, the keel, the floor, and fragments of the French barque “Posthumus” were pointed out to the visitors, and “Henry Waterhouse” (brother of the Chief) told how he had met the four survivors wandering about the shore, faint, hungry, and fearing they had escaped death by drowning only to be devoured by cannibals – how the poor fellows were at length persuaded to come up to the settlement and their first wants supplied – and how, afterwards, other requisite steps were taken to meet their necessities. In a nook was also pointed out the place where the Captain of the ill-fated vessel Was buried. Fragments of the wreck are scattered about in different small bays adjoining the scene of the wreck.”

Not familiar with the Waitakere Ranges in any great detail, I thought looking up details on the wreck of the Posthumus might give me an idea as to where the writer had been. Not really.

According to New Zealand Shipwrecks, the Posthumus was a barque wrecked on 21 September 1853 – at Kaipara. Just off the Tory Shoal, the Posthumus struck and was breached by the sea. There was no loss of life, including the captain – they all made their way along the Kaipara River inland, arriving in Auckland five days later. The Posthumus wasn’t French; she was part-owned by a New Zealander, William Williams of Tamaki.

I looked through Papers Past – and found references to the Posthumus close to those of another wreck, that of the Helena. This from the Southern Cross, 23 September 1853:

"Calamitous Shipwreck.

"It is with deep regret we have to state that the barque Helena, belonging to Mr. Macnamara, of Sydney, was totally wrecked in Waitakare Bay, between Manukau and Kaipara, on the night of Friday, the 16th inst. on which disastrous occasion her commander, Capt. John Brown, — well known to many of our fellow-citizens whilst in command of the brig Nina — his chief officer, and five of his ship's company, unfortunately perished. The following particulars have been furnished us by George Gordon, an intelligent young seaman, one of the four survivors.

“The Helena, a fine, smart barque of 265 tons, sailed from Melbourne, bound for Hokianga, on the 23rd August, under the command of Captain John Brown, formerly of the brig Nina, of Bristol, which vessel was lost off the island of St. Paul, on her passage from Bristol to Melbourne.

"The Helena experienced pleasant weather from the time of leaving Melbourne until the evening before she made the coast of New Zealand, which was on the eighth or ninth day. At that time, the westerly gales, which have blown so long and fiercely, set in, and the ship was in consequence hove to under a close-reefed main-topsail and spinnaker, a heavy sea running, and driving her bodily inshore. Captain Brown, of whom the survivors speak with the utmost affection and respect, took every precaution a skilful mariner could take to reach offshore, prefixing by every possible opportunity to make sail and stand out to sea; but the gale continued with unabated fury; and although top-gallant masts, mizzen top-mast, and all top-hamper had been sent down to stiffen her; although even her topmast back-stays had siarted the dead eyes under the pressure of her canvas, yet, being in ballast trim, and making so much leeway, it was only by means of the most untiring energy and skill that the ship was enabledto long to maintain her seaward position.

"During eleven days of weary anxiety, Capt. Brown and his crew were thus occupied, vainly endeavouring to gain an offing; and tossed about, up and down the West Coast, from Hokianga to Manukau. Three several ports were successively sought to be entered viz, Hokianga, Kaipara, and Manakau. The attempt, however, was found to be altogether impracticable, so close was the Helena, at one time, to the former port, that a ship was seen at anchor in tide. Not knowing the bar and the sea breaking right across, Captain Brown was afraid to venture.

"An attempt was then made to enter the harbour of Manukau. This was on Friday last, and between 3 and 4 p.m. The ship was, unfortunately, driven too far to leeward, fetching to leeward of the reef. In this melancholy position, there was no alternative but to wear the ship; in doing so, she was driven still further to leeward and, in fact became hopelessly embayed. Night being now fast approaching, as the last remaining chance of escape, the ship was beached, taking the flat sandy shore nearly at low water. She struck heavily several times, when the mainmast was cut away to lighten her. At this moment, she broke right across in two pieces, all hands being left on the after part. A boat was then lowered, but, the moment it touched the water, the sea swept it clear of the tackles.

"Two of the crew next endeavoured to swim ashore with a line fastened to them. Neither of them could succeed, the sea and tide utterly overpowering them. They with difficulty got back to the wreck. The only alternative was thus to remain by the ship until she broke up, an event which took place almost immediately after the tide began to flow. At this appalling juncture, all hands, except the chief officer (Mr. James Hutton, of Aberdeen) and one seaman (Edward Davis, of Bristol, late of the Nina), who were on deck, from whence they were swept by a heavy sea, were in the cabin, where Captain Brown wan reading prayers to them. The cabin was a deck house; and was continually filled with the sea that burst in from seaward, and the back wash that poured in from a-lee. Whilst the Captain was reading, the mizzen mast fell, killing, it is supposed, a boy of fifteen years of age named Thomas Harrold, a native of Bristol.

"The ship at the same time parted in pieces, and all hands were swept away. The survivors can give no account of the manner in which those who perished met their fate; but as Captain Brown's head was frightfully lacerated, when his body was found, it is supposed he must have been killed by some portion of the wreck. The names and occupations of the others who perished were:

"Mr. Willam Farthing of Bristol, second officer; John Hutchins, of Torquay, Devon;
George Smith of Tenby, seamen; these last being the two poor fellows who vainly endeavoured to carry a line ashore.

"The names of the survivors (who, of course, have lost their all) are:

"George Gordon, London; John Coleman, Armagh, late of the Nina; Thomas Pettit, Leven; and Robert Williamson, Sunderland, seamen. These four were washed ashore on a part of the stern frame which split in two the moment it struck the ground. They were sadly buffeted, being sucked back by the under-tow. Gordon was dragged ashore in a state of insensibility by his shipmates and Williamson had the cap of his knee badly wounded.

"The survivors were discovered by the natives the next day, about 3 o'clock; and, we rejoice to state, experienced the utmost kindness and humanity at their hands. Capt. Brown’s body having been cast ashore, the natives dug a grave, and interred it, his late shipmates reading the funeral service over his remains. The seamen were conveyed to the dwellings of the natives where, having been hospitably entertained for the next three days, they were conveyed to Mr. Henderson's Mill, at the head of the Waitemata.

"There was no other body but that of the captain cast ashore. Two boats, some stores, together with several spars, rigging, sails, and a considerable portion of the vessel, have been saved. These have been taken charge of by the natives. The barque Posthumous was to have sailed from Melbourne, for Kaipara, on the 24th ult., the day after the Helena.”

It was the Helena, not the Posthumus, which had become a shipwreck off Waitakeri Bay – the bay known these days as Bethell’s Beach / Te Henga. I suppose six years down the track from the tragedy, the New Zealander’s correspondent simply got the two wrecks mixed up, seeing as they happened relatively close to each other in time and geography.

The Helena, though, wasn’t French, either.

Southern Cross, 30 September 1853


  1. I'm pretty certain that the Helena went aground in what is now called O'Neill's Bay just north of the main Bethells beach- it all used to be called Waitakiri Bay. I found the anchor about 10 years ago. We also found an old ships nail on a knoll, the 'natives' supposedly stacked the stores on a knoll above the beach- less than 100m from where the anchor was.

    1. Wow... could you please describe exactly where you found the anchor and old ships nail? We are teaching some local kids about this shipwreck, and would love to know more. Also - thank you to the author for the great information.

  2. the first account of Hochstetter's party describes the route taken from Henderson, following the foot track that was subsequently surveyed in 1860 as the main road to waitakere west. From references to features, and the survey plan, the route taken approximates to Glen Road, Crows Road, Mcentee Road, through the present day Waitakere township and up Bethells Road (through what was Dilworths Farm) to RaupoTamaki Ridge (Duffy Road). From there according to the article it was a Maori foot track on to Te Henga.