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An apology and explanation with finesse and dignity

The Buffalo was wrecked in Mercury Bay 163 years ago on July 28. Some say it could have been avoided. The Informer has no opinion but is impressed by this letter written by the Captain or Master in Command (James Wood from the beach), written on 4 August 1840, just a week after the shipwreck. It is said he wrote this on Buffalo Beach as he watched the wreck.

This Master in Command explained in such generous detail. There is a tone of defensiveness but always praise for others. He is so overwhelmingly sorry.

This style of explanation has left our culture somewhat. But the act of writing an apology amid generous praise of others and pictorial detail of thoughts and events is a worthy exercise.

The letter was addressed to: Richard Moore O Farrell Esq. Secretary to the Admiralty.

To Richard Moore O Ferrall Esq

Secretary to the Admiralty

S 5891

Offrs: 150

Beach in Mercury Bay

New Zealand

4th August 1840


It is my most painful duty to report to my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, the total wreck of Her Majesty’s Ship Buffalo under my command on this beach, on the morning of 28th instant, by driving and parting from all her anchors in a terrific gale of wind from the Eastward and most tremendous sea rolling in.

I have succeeded in saving the lives of all hands with the exception of a man, CHARLES MOORE AB and a boy, EDWIN COMBES, washed from one if the cutters which capsized in the surf, nearly the whole provisions, muster books etc and what stores we could get at, but the ship is so buried in the sand and full of water that I fear a few things will be of use.

It will be necessary to inform my Lord’s Commissioners of the Adm9irlaty the cause of my being in the neighbourhood. Having on y arrival at the Bay of Islands received very encouraging information that a cargo of spars could be procured at this place without much difficulty, and in every way id flattering that I considered to proceed to avail myself of so good an offer, and proceeded with all dispatch when on my arrival I found from the purveyor’s report that the information I had received is accurate. While there a native chief (Jackie Worra) told me of a forest of kauri belonging to him, 12 miles to the Southward. Hither I dispatched the purveyors to survey. Their report was encouraging that I determined on leaving Mercury Bay directed by Chief (Jackie Worra) and found on further examination my hopes of a good cargo realized above my expectations.

The only difficulty was to find a secure harbour for the ship. After landing the purveyors and a strong party with provisions, I went in search of a good anchorage but found none so good as Mercury Bay, where I determined on appearance of bad weather, to secure the ship as well as possible, occasionally visiting the party and an island 20 miles to the Southward, to procure pigs and potatoes for the crew and the natives hired at that Island, (Mayor Island.)

The full particulars of this unfortunate event I enclose in a copy from the logbook to which I beg to refer their Lord Ships, and trust that their Lordships will see every exertion was used by me, and every possible means resorted to, to save the ship. And when all hopes to effect that object was at an end, my attention was called to saving the lives of the crew in which I happily succeeded.

I cannot speak too much praise of the full officers and men with me when she struck. Their promptness and attention to my orders, their seamanlike conduct and perfect coolness in the time of the greatest danger, was with the assistance of divine providence, the means of keeping the ship off the sand bank, towards which she was fast drifting, and from the awful sea then breaking on it not a soul could have escaped.

The party form the forest is now with me, having suspended all further work there, and I have dispatched a message to Coromandel Harbour to ascertain if a vessel can be hired to take us to the Bay of Islands. I have also sent an officer to communicate with any Naval Officer at the Bay of Islands, in his absence, or in absence the Lieutenant Governor.

I have ordered the purveyors and chief carpenter’s mate to examine into the state of the ship. They report that all attempts to get her off would be useless, for she is so broken up and that she never could be made seaworthy. I shall therefore lose no time in returning to England, either by hiring a ship, or as circumstances may render necessary for the good of Her Majesty’s Service, calling at Sydney for provisions unless supplied by any of H.M Ships.

The most perfect harmony exists between the crew and the natives, who have rendered every assistance in their power, in collecting and hauling things from the wreck and making themselves generally useful, for which I shall renumerate them from the barter.

I have the honour to be,

Your most obedient humble servant

J Wood, Master in Command Late Buffalo

Caption: HMS Buffalo

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