Waitangi-era HMS Buffalo shipwreck washing away as storms take toll

Credit: Original article can be found here

A famous shipwreck that has lain in shallow waters for nearly two centuries is likely to be pummelled to pieces without urgent protection after a recent storm washed up a number of significant timbers.

Driven ashore by howling gale and mountainous seas in 1840, HMS Buffalo has been sitting just 50 metres out from Buffalo Beach in Whitianga for the last 181 years.

The cargo ship used to be cushioned in a blanket of sand, buffering it from storms, but a survey in March showed that its layer of protection has now gone.

Over the last month, six pieces of timber, believed to be from the vessel, have since been found by locals walking along the beach after stormy weather has washed them in.

Mercury Bay Museum manager Rebecca Cox says it’s an alarming sign that the old relic may be starting to disintegrate.

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An artist's impression of the HMS Buffalo at the Mercury Bay Museum exhibition. Painting by Paul Deacon.

An artist’s impression of the HMS Buffalo at the Mercury Bay Museum exhibition. Painting by Paul Deacon.

“In the last two to three weeks we’ve had severe storms that have battered the wreck and flooded our beaches,” said Cox, one of three leaders behind the HMS Buffalo re-examination project.

The shipwreck is a protected archaeological site and removal of items is illegal. While it’s not uncommon for locals to find pieces of Buffalo wreckage, Cox said this is the first time framing timber has been discovered on the beach.

“We tend to get a lot of pieces of the Buffalo brought in, but it tends to be sacrificial planking or pieces of copper.

Many HMS Buffalo ship wreck pieces have been dropped off to Mercury Bay Museum over the years to be assessed and verified.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Many HMS Buffalo ship wreck pieces have been dropped off to Mercury Bay Museum over the years to be assessed and verified.

“Sacrificial planking was used on the outside of the ship against the main timbers, which kind of acted like a buffer, so if anything had happened to the ship that planking could be cheaply replaced.

These recent finds of structural timber are “significant to the wreck”, she said.

“They are massive framing timbers about three metres long, and they are teak, so they are considerably heavy.”

Using data from a survey of the wreck in 1986, Cox said they know the wreck was completely covered in sand to the point that “the archaeologist had to pump the sand off of it to find the wreck”.

Mercury Bay Museum manager Rebecca Cox and a group of volunteers have made a make-shift salt water bath to keep the washed up timber from drying out.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Mercury Bay Museum manager Rebecca Cox and a group of volunteers have made a make-shift salt water bath to keep the washed up timber from drying out.

Through aerial footage and photos from a glass bottom boat, in 2015 people started to see an outline of the ship, but the inside was still covered in the sand.

Fast-forward to now and the wreck is no longer covered in sand and “in actual fact it’s scoured out the side of the ship”, she said.

Without an updated survey and timber assessment, however, they don’t know if the timbers they are now receiving were broken off the wreck or had been in the sand around the wreck and were uncovered by these storms.

“She’s sitting bow in stern out and her framing is a metre and a half up out of the sand.

The framing timbers will need to be slowly introduced to fresh water before they can be preserved.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

The framing timbers will need to be slowly introduced to fresh water before they can be preserved.

“If these timbers were broken off due the storm it’s a sign the wreck is considerably at risk.”

Assessing the timbers would record details such as fastenings, which would identify where each piece would have sat on the ship.

It would also allow marine archaeologists to take photos of all the pieces to make a 3D image of the ship.

The timber would then need to be preserved by a conservator.

The shipwreck is just off the shore of Buffalo Beach in Whitianga marked by a yellow marker buoy.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

The shipwreck is just off the shore of Buffalo Beach in Whitianga marked by a yellow marker buoy.

The March survey was made possible because of community donations and a grant, but Cox says it’s unlikely they will be able to do that again.

Cox estimates the assessment of the timbers would cost around $11,000 and that wouldn’t include a dive survey of the wreck.

“Through community support we’ve been able to dig a shallow tank full of salt water to stop the timbers from drying out, but they can’t stay in there forever.

“We are also at the mercy of the sea, because more pieces could show up at any time.”

A broad arrow stamp can be seen on true pieces of the HMS Buffalo indicating it was purchased or made by the Crown.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

A broad arrow stamp can be seen on true pieces of the HMS Buffalo indicating it was purchased or made by the Crown.

Cox has made contact with Waikato Regional Council and Thames Coromandel District Council about covering the costs, but neither have taken the bait.

She plans to also approach the British High commissioner.

Sailors Grave memorial in Tairua is looked after by the British navy because it’s the burial site of crew from HMS Tortoise.

Cox hopes they will take the same responsibility for HMS Buffalo.

“As a museum we are a regional museum barely keeping a float and there is no way we can do what we need to do with our limited money.

Seaman Charles Moore was one of two crew who died on the day of the wreck.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Seaman Charles Moore was one of two crew who died on the day of the wreck.

“It’s frustrating because we are taking responsibility. We can see our part in all of this, and we know we need to take responsibility in being the kaitiaki (guardian) of those pieces, but we can’t do that on our own.

With Aotearoa history also being introduced next year in schools, Cox feels it’s extra important to preserve pieces of the ship to continue these local conservations.

“Lots of our areas are named after her (Buffalo) and Ngāti Hei played a major role in the day of the wreck.

“If we lose the Buffalo that’s our heritage gone.”

The HMS Buffalo memorial plaque near Whitianga is not the specific anchor from the Buffalo, but sits in front of where the wreck lays.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

The HMS Buffalo memorial plaque near Whitianga is not the specific anchor from the Buffalo, but sits in front of where the wreck lays.

Brief history of HMS Buffalo

Built in 1813 in India, the HMS Buffalo traversed the seas between England, Australia, Canada and New Zealand spending a lifetime carrying convicts, immigrants, troops and political prisoners.

It also carted New Zealand kauri back to England and carried many significant historical colonisers on board.

On one of the ship’s final voyagers it brought Lieutenant governor William Hobson’s wife and children from Australia to the Bay of Islands.

Unknown artist impression of HMS Buffalo in the Mercury Bay Museum exhibition.

Unknown artist impression of HMS Buffalo in the Mercury Bay Museum exhibition.

On that journey they had one of the first designs of the New Zealand flag, but it wasn’t agreed upon as tangata whenua felt it didn’t have enough red.

The HMS Buffalo’s journey came to an end in 1840 when ,while anchored in Mercury Bay off Whitianga loaded with kauri spars, a storm wrecked the ship.

As many sailors then weren’t able to swim, it was thanks to local iwi Ngāti Hei that only two people died.

Using a rope as a pulley tangata whenua were able to help the sailors ashore. They agreed to bury one of the dead sailors at their urupa Hukihuki – a significant and unheard of gesture for that time.

It was said that some of the ship’s timbers have since been used at Hukihuki Pā to create a gateway.

Ship’s boy John Corners died during the wreck.

Kelly Hodel/Stuff

Ship’s boy John Corners died during the wreck.