The Brig Active

Most of us can name the ship that brought the first actual group of Europeans to settle in America - The Mayflower. But how about the name of the ship that brought the first non-missionary settlers to New Zealand? The podcast below is a Radio NZ interview with Stan Hansen talking about the historical journeys made by the Brig Active commanded by Captain Thomas Hansen. Click the play button to listen or click here to download the audio file.



The origin of the Brig Active is really interesting. Samuel Marsden had referred to it as ‘a brig from India – about 110 tons' at the time he purchased it in March 1814. The exact price appears to vary according to the source but it was probably in the vicinity of 1400 pounds sterling which Marsden paid himself.


At one stage it appeared to have been tracked down to a ship building yard in England which had produced a brig named Active, the same size as our waka, pre-1800. But more recent research has revealed a mention in the Sydney Gazette which referred to the Active having been built in Calcutta and arriving Down Under in 1810. Then, a weird tale relating to the brig and the Irish owner in a book entitled ‘Macquarie's World' by Marjorie Barnard. The following extract is from Kath Hansen's book ‘In the Wake of the Active' pub. 1994 (privately).


The Active had first appeared in Australian waters in December 1810 having arrived from the island of Mauritius as reported in the Sydney Gazette on the 29th of that month. From shipping news it appears that the brig was built in Calcutta around 1808/09 and was owned by Jonathon Burke McHugo. In January 1812 McHugo turned up in the Active at Launceston in Van Dieman's Land and all but persuaded the commandant, Lt. Colonel Gordon, to hand over control to him.


McHugo convinced Gordon that he was a member of the British Royal Family travelling incognito and Colonel Gordon actually surrendered his command to McHugo but was in turn persuaded by his own officers that McHugo was a phoney. The frustrated McHugo then became violent and was sent under armed guard to Port Jackson, in his own brig, where he was examined by Doctor Redfern who found him to be in a state of outrageous insanity.


It was established that McHugo was really the son of a Dublin tobacconist although he believed that he was descended from Mary Queen of Scots and Bothwell. Governor Macquarie's official report of the events that had taken place was that Colonel Gordon believed that McHugo had the authority to supersede all Governors, Commanders etc wherever he (McHugo) pleased to visit.


The brig Active and its cargo, both of which had been purchased by McHugo on credit, were auctioned in Port Jackson which is where Mr Marsden came to purchase the brig. Proceeds of the sale were sent back to India with McHugo who was confined to an asylum there. After 2½ years he managed to talk his way out and was able to travel to London where he sought out Lord Sidmouth. His attempts to get his brig back were unsuccessful and in his harassing letters he continued to pass himself off as royalty with his signature: Prince of Scotland (by birth) and (by Constitutional Laws) of Great Britain and Ireland. (end of quote)


Before making the second historic voyage to the Bay of Islands, late in 1814, Marsden had the brig inspected and certified as to its suitability because it was intended that it would be in constant use as a trading and passenger vessel for the proposed mission settlement. I have seen the original document, now held by the University of Otago, which states that the brig was well adapted for the purpose of taking missionaries from Port Jackson to New Zealand and will with occasional repairs, caulking etc last many years to carry on the communication between this place and the proposed settlement in the Bay of Islands.


The document was dated 22nd September 1814 and was signed by Richard Brooks, agent for the underwriters at Lloyds; E Bunker, master of the Seringapatum and Thomas Hansen, master of the ship Active. There is an interesting twist of fate here because 25 years later, a future grand-daughter of Captain Eber Bunker married the then infant grand-son of Captain Thomas Hansen. This was Philip Hansen King, the youngest passenger on the Active's historic voyage.


When the Active left Port Jackson on 19th November 1814, the entire Hansen family of three generations was on board. The Active also carried what was described as a ‘Noah's Ark' by Nicholas; horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry, cats and dogs intended for the mission settlement.


By Friday 16th December the Active was within sight of the New Zealand coast and on Saturday, it lay anchored off the North Cape for the whole day whilst Marsden made arrangements to contact local tribes and obtain fresh supplies for both passengers and animals on board. The stock particularly needed fresh grass.


As the Active proceeded down the east coast, Marsden went ashore at the Cavalli Islands and again on the nearby mainland. Finally, at 3 p.m. on Thursday 22nd December the brig dropped anchor in the small cove near Rangihoua, the home of Ruatara. While surrounded by canoes from every direction the Active's great guns were fired as a salute to Ruatara and his people.


Samuel Marsden returned to New South Wales in February 1815 and Thomas Hansen continued as master for the following two years. Marsden actually owned the Active for a whole 10 years during which it had a succession of masters. Marsden finally sold the brig to Sydney merchant Robert Campbell who gave it a thorough refit and put it back on the Sydney-Calcutta run. After only two voyages, the brig was found to be unseaworthy and destined to be broken up. It was actually lost at sea with all hands while returning to Calcutta for the last time.


The American people have a high regard for the Mayflower which took the Pilgrim Fathers to their new land in 1620. The Australians acknowledge the convict fleet which took the first settlers there in 1788. New Zealand's own ‘Mayflower' is undoubtedly the Active which brought the first permanent, European settlers to our country.

Contact Information

1814 Hansen Family Society Inc.
Auckland, New Zealand

Committee members details