The Voyage of HMS Tortoise to Australia and NZ 1841-3

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This oil painting is by gifted maritime painter Roger Morris and was commissioned by Don Armitage in 2012. It shows HMS Tortoise towards the end of April, 1843, when it has almost  
 completed loading kauri spars  while moored off Tairua, Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand.


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            HMS Tortoise was moored at Nagles Cove, Great Barrier Island for six months during the last half of 1842. It was a particularly safe anchorage in all weathers, and had the advantage of a shipbuilding establishment ashore overseen by Captain Jeremiah Nagle. The Tortoise was a large barque of 986 tons, and 150 foot long, crewed by 80 men. At this time she was already an old ship, having been built of teak in Bombay, India 57 years before, and launched 22nd March, 1784. It was then named the Sir Edward Hughes and was an East Indiaman, not a Royal Navy vessel. In 1806 it was sold to the Royal Navy, renamed HMS Tortoise, and pierced to carry 22 guns. But for many years she lay at Woolwich, becoming increasingly in need of repair.

           Her Commander for the 1841-3 voyage, James Wood, had already been to New Zealand twice before in 1838 and1840 as Commander of the 120 foot long, 589 ton barque HMS Buffalo to get kauri spars mainly for the large ships-of-the-line of the Royal Navy. The location of their timber-cutting camp was Te Karo Bay, about 4 miles north of Tairua on the east coast of  Coromandel  Peninsula.   Unfortunately, they had only got 22 spars felled by late July, 1840, when strong easterly gales forced the ship ashore where it was wrecked. A later court martial in England completely exonerated Wood.  The intentions this time were to deliver convicts to Hobart and then complete the Buffalo’s mission. As the New Zealand winter of 1842 arrived and to avoid the dangers of an exposed coast at that time of year, the Tortoise was moored at Great Barrier Island, and the cutting camp at Te Karo was supplied from it by a succession of cutters and schooners shuttling back and forth.

            However, it was not all smooth sailing. Three crewmembers of the Tortoise had lost their lives while in New Zealand, and there were on-going problems getting native labour, dealing with interruptions and inconveniences caused by the threat of inter-tribal warfare, provisioning, and lastly, the reluctance of the widow of a recent Governor of New Zealand to come aboard for the return voyage to England. When the Tortoise arrived back in England in October 1843, she had with her an important collection of flora and fauna, which had been gotten while in New Zealand, and which were given to the museum at Kew, but efforts to find it today have so far proved unsuccessful..

            The story of the voyage to Australia and New Zealand is mostly taken from the ship’s log, a journal written by the Master, William Jeffrey, a private soldier of the 96th Regiment, Edmund Ashworth, a convict on the voyage, George Reading, and the journal of the Timber Purveyor, Thomas Laslett. Other information has been gleaned from archival and newspaper sources in England, Australia and New Zealand. Sketches and paintings are from a variety of sources.

The Tortoise was broken up and sunk off the coast of Ascension Island most probably in 1860, (not 1858 as was previously thought), where its remains are still visible today.


  Copyright Don Armitage