Museum keen to locate Buffalo’s “loose cannon”

05 Oct 2021

Museum keen to locate Buffalo’s “loose cannon”

The Mercury Bay Museum is keen to locate a cannon jettisoned by the crew of the HMS Buffalo as they desperately fought to save their stricken vessel in hurricane-force winds and mountainous seas.

Museum manager, Rebecca Cox, said that if the cannon can be recovered, it will be given pride of place at the entrance to the museum where visitors and passersby will have permanent physical reminder of the disaster that wrecked the ship at the cost of two lives in the early hours of 28 July 1840. “If it could be recovered, then we would absolutely conserve and preserve it at the museum,” she said. “Just like the timbers that washed up after the storms a couple of months ago, they are part of our heritage… part of the ship that gave Buffalo Beach its name.

“That goes for the cannon and any of the anchors or anything else that can be located, they would come to the museum. And the cannon would have pride of place outside, absolutely.”

Rebecca and maritime archeologists, Kurt Bennett and Matthew Gainsford, are currently working on a project to protect what remains of the wreck, located just 60m off Buffalo Beach, before it succumbs to the force of the seas and disintegrates completely.

“I found a document that states that there is one cannon possibly out in the Bay still and there was a comment that there are organisations in New Zealand who may know where it is or how to find it,” Rebecca said. “So, I have had a chat with Kurt and Matthew and we are going to have a chat with those organisations and ask them if they would like to be involved in helping us.”

The document Rebecca had sighted mentioned that according to salvage logs at the Admiralty in London, a cannon was missing from the Buffalo and was presumed to still be somewhere in the Bay. The document had been included in a feasibility study for a South Australian government archeology survey of the wreck in 1986, as South Australia also has strong links with the ship, having transported the first governor of the state, Captain John Hindmarsh, and his family to Adelaide. In fact, they lived on the vessel for six months while the Buffalo crew built them a new house.

Rebecca said that if they decided to locate the cannon, there were proper processes that had to be followed. “Among the things to consider is whether it is appropriate from an archeological point of view to recover the cannon, if indeed a cannon is located, but the indications we have had is that it would be appropriate to record where it was found along with other surrounding details and then remove it to be preserved for future generations to see, rather than lying rusting away at the bottom of the sea,” she said.

Then there was also the question of ownership, as the wreck itself came under the authority of Heritage New Zealand (though that might not apply to items from the vessel scattered over the seabed), whereas it was also under water under the authority of Waikato Regional Council.

In addition, it was a former British Navy ship and at one time Kelly Tarlton had salvage rights to the wreck, but those rights lapsed in the late 1970s. Kelly Tarlton had planned to lift most of the wreck and transport it to his Museum of Shipwrecks in the Bay of Islands.

Rebecca said that while they had not turned their mind to the question of ownership, if the cannon could be found, the best place for it was in Whitianga.

Museum volunteer, Wayne Myers, who has spent six months researching the Buffalo history from logs, official documents and other sources, said that the missing cannon was thrown overboard as the crew fought the elements to save the ship.

He said that the ship was sitting off Cooks Beach held with two anchors when the winds started to get stronger and stronger, eventually reaching hurricane force. The crew dropped the sails completely to reduce resistance to the gale as much as possible, but the force of the wind was so strong that one of the iron anchor chains snapped.

Faced with the prospect of the vessel swinging wildly in the rough seas, the crew cut loose the remaining anchor and attempted to sail the ship around Shakespeare Cliff to the relative calm of the Whitianga Harbour. But despite heroic seamanship, the vessel first lost its rudder on the rocks and then in a second hit, part of the keel was ripped off letting water flood into the rear of the ship.

In a desperate effort to get the ship into the estuary near where the Whitianga Wharf is now, Wayne said the crew dropped a third anchor in attempt to get the vessel to swivel in that direction, but to no avail and that anchor was also cut free. The vessel then hit a sand bar and was washed over by the raging tide. 

Wayne said the captain, realising the peril, then beached the vessel where it remains today just offshore from Whitianga Continuing Care on Buffalo Beach Road. He said that the Buffalo would have had a complement of nine cannon and six smaller guns. All were tied down and secured except for one cannon which was still in its gun emplacement on deck.

At some stage it was decided to throw this cannon overboard to protect the crew and prevent extreme damage to the ship from what would have been literally a loose cannon rolling around the deck. This is believed to be the cannon that still remains somewhere between Cooks Beach and the Buffalo’s final resting place.

Wayne said that two of the anchors were later recovered by another British ship, though there was no record of the missing cannon or the third anchor being salvaged.

He said that in the month or so that followed the disaster, the crew carried out a “controlled salvage” of the Buffalo wreck, removing whatever they could, including the other guns, tackle, rigging mast, and spars, as it was the property of the Crown and the ship’s purser had to account for every last item where practical, even after a shipwreck.

At least one or two of the cannons from the Buffalo are on display in Adelaide and another which is “believed to be” from the Buffalo, sits in Whitianga’s Soldiers Memorial Park.

Pictured - This canon in Soldiers Memorial Park in Whitianga is believed to be from HMS Buffalo.