189 small wooden crosses represent lives lost

18:28, Feb 04 2013
REMEMBERING LIVES: Titirangi artist Don Lever, 82, is among 20 artists taking part in an Orpheus commemoration art installation at the Voyager Maritime Museum.

The Orpheus tragedy is etched in Don Lever's mind after years of living in West Auckland.

The 82-year-old Titirangi man is involved in a commemorative art installation organised by the Voyager Maritime Museum and Lopdell House Gallery to honour the 189 lives lost out of 259 in New Zealand's worst marine disaster.

"It's always been in one's mind of course. It's quite an honour," he says.

Twenty West Auckland artists, including Mr Lever, have painted and decorated 189 small wooden crosses representing the lives lost as a way of marking the disaster's 150th anniversary.

The crosses will then be placed in a wooden boat and displayed at the Maritime Museum from January 1 to 10.

Mr Lever has been given 11 crosses and has come up with a unique and powerful design.


"I've collected sand from Whatipu where the bodies were washed up then sprinkled it on to wet paint, where I've incorporated a Maori design which is a tribute to the very brave Maori crew who went out in an open dinghy and rescued quite a few of the survivors," he says.

"The Maori reference I got out of a book and the top of the design is pointing skyward, up into heaven. There's a little double meaning to it."

The crosses display the name, age and occupation of the men killed in the tragedy, including 20-year-old painter W Rowland and 46-year-old commodore W F Burnett.

Lopdell House Gallery director Lesley Smith says it's moving how each cross is personalised.

"You're remembering a name, not just a number and there was such a range of skills lost," she says.

Voyager Maritime Museum chief executive Murray Reade says the anniversary of the wreck is a great opportunity to commemorate and remember the lives lost.

The Orpheus was built in 1860 and in 1863 it arrived in New Zealand from Sydney to deliver supplies and troop reinforcements.

It was planned to come through the Waitemata Harbour but Captain Burnett decided to go through Manukau Harbour.

He ignored the latest charts and directions which showed a large sand bank had formed.

The ship struck the sand bank and capsized.

The steamship Wonga Wonga was travelling out of the harbour at the time and attempted to pick up survivors, many of whom had climbed into the rigging as the deck became submerged.

The Wonga Wonga remained in the area overnight looking for survivors and its crew buried what dead could be recovered in the sand dunes on shore.

This month The Whatipu Orpheus commemoration committee, which comprises three organisations - The Huia Settlers Museum Trust, West Auckland Historical Society and Friends of Whatipu - has planned a memorial ceremony to remember those who died.

More on the Orpheus commemorations P7

Western Leader