Friday, 9 October 2020

The Active and the Rev. Henry Williams, 1832

Early Sailing Vessels and Visitors to Tauranga
Part X  -  The Active and the Rev. Henry Williams, 1832

Built in Calcutta around 1808, the brigantine Active was purchased by the missionary leader Samuel Marsden at Sydney in March 1814. Marsden, who planned to use the 110 ton vessel to help establish and service Anglican mission stations in New Zealand, paid the purchase price of 1400 pounds sterling himself. The vessel’s previous owner Jonothan McHugo, had been found on his arrival in Sydney to be ‘in a state of outrageous insanity.’ When the vessel and its cargo was auctioned, the proceeds of the sale were sent back to India with McHugo, who was for a time, confined to an asylum there.

During its historic voyage under Captain Hansen to establish the first missionary families at the Bay of Islands in late 1814, the group’s leader, Thomas Kendall noted that the Active ‘sails badly’. Regardless, Marsden kept the Active in constant use as a trading and passenger vessel between Sydney and the mission stations at Rangihoua, Kerikeri and Paihia. The missionary John Butler, who crossed the Tasman in 1819 found the brig ‘a strong and comfortable vessel, kept in good order.’ Appointed leading missionary at the Bay of Islands in 1823, Henry Williams, a former Royal Navy lieutenant, was often frustrated by the brig’s performance, writing:

She has a most unfortunate name and is no better than an old tub. She is not capable of working well off a lee shore, nor able to make sail and run before either a sudden gale or even hostile natives.

The Active off North Cape, November 1814

In March 1833, Williams instructed Captain Wright to take the Active to Tauranga, where he hoped to make peace between the local Ngai Te Rangi People and an invading Ngapuhi taua (military expedition) from the Bay of Islands led by Titore Takiri. Williams had previously visited Tauranga aboard the little missionary schooner Karere during January and February with the same intention He was not successful however, and had returned home. The journal for his second attempt in March/April 1833 records:

Monday, 26. At sunset, Mr. Fairburn and I went on board the Active; weighed and sailed for Tauranga.

Friday, 30
. At day light Mayor Island S. W. 6 miles. Shortened sail apprehensive of being driven off the land. Obs'd the fires near Tauranga. Maunganui about 6 miles to windward.

Saturday, 31
. At 9 o'clock came to an anchor close to leeward of Maunganui. Cap. Wright and Mr. Fairburn went on shore to reconnoitre. [W]e learnt that Ngapuhi had shifted quarters and were on the opposite of the river to Maungatapu, that several skirmishes had taken place and some few killed and wounded on both sides.

A former Royal Navy officer and accomplished small boat sailor, Henry Williams found the Active’s slow pace and lack of maneuverability exasperating

Also that the New Zealander Schr. had been in, when a large party of Ngapuhi had fired upon her for a considerable time from the shore, which was returned by the schooner with her great guns, not known whether any killed or wounded. At 2 p.m. the flood tide making in, we weighed and made sail and worked into the harbour.

Sunday, 1 April. At sunrise upwards of a dozen canoes obs. pulling towards us from Ngapuhi full of men. We hoisted a white flag, but they were not satisfied what vessel it was until they hailed us… They told us they had thought we were the schr. which they engaged ten days since and had now come to take her and had brought six great guns.

Monday, 2. In the afternoon, Mr. Fairburn and I went to Ngapuhi. Paid a visit to all, many appeared desirous to return but others obstinately bent on remaining.

Tuesday, 3. We took a view of the fortifications [of Maungatapu Pa] which were stronger than those of Otumoetai.

Thursday, 5. Had short interview with the natives [at Maungatapu Pa] and proceeded on to the Camp of Ngapuhi. We had not been long here before seven Canoes pulled up from Otumoetai to challenge Ngapuhi. At length some canoes were launched and gave chase to the enemy. The two parties firing at each other at long range on the beach opposite the vessel. 

In 1832, Tauranga was invaded by a Ngapuhi musket taua from the Bay of Islands seeking utu for previous defeats by Ngai Te Rangi

Friday, 6. We took leave of all regretting that they retained dispositions to war… Returned on board by noon and as the wind was East we determined to proceed to the Bay of Islands immediately. As it was now high water we weighed and made sail, but were considerably baffled under the lee of Maunganui, the eddy wind catching us first on one side then on the other put us in imminent danger of running on shore. The entrance was narrow on our right, and a bank on our left, with a head sea caused by the tide now setting out strong. As we drew from under the high land the wind was more steady, and the tide assisting us, were enabled by a few tacks to get well clear of the land.
Were obliged to haul close to the Starbd. tack, and carry all possible sail, to endeavour to clear the Aldermen. Sunset, cloudy, symptoms of a gale. At 8 passed close to leeward of the Aldermen, and stood on for the Mercury isles, had great apprehensions that we could not weather, the sea getting up. At 11 saw the islands close to leeward. Wore and stood to the Southd. a rough course night. Waited anxiously for the morning, that we might run in amongst the islands.

Saturday, 7. We bore up in haste and were soon in smooth water under the lee of the Mercury islands and discovered what we had never before seen tho often in this neighbourhood a commodious bay in which we anchored about 10 o'clock, to the unspeakable relief of our minds and bodies. At 6 p.m. we all assembled in the Cabin to offer up prayer and praise to the God of all mercies for our late deliverance, every one being too weary to attend earlier.

Tuesday, 10. Mod and fine. Wind S. S. W. At 7 weighed and made sail and worked out of our bay of refuge, with thankful hearts for the protection afforded to us while here from the raging of the tempest, and for the wind now favourable for our return home.

Wednesday, 11. At sunrise Bay of Islands open to view, wind against us. Worked up by the afternoon, and were thankful to learn that all were well. 

The Active, redrawn by the Auckland Artist Richard Horner in 1988

Soon after the departure of the missionaries, Titore’s taua - unable to achieve any military successes at Tauranga and suffering food and munitions shortages – boarded their waka taua (war canoes) and also returned to the Bay of Islands.

Despite its limitations, the Active provided sterling service for the Church Missionary Society in New Zealand, under a succession of captains between 1814 and 1834. After many close calls, including nearly being ship wrecked on the return voyage from Tauranga in 1832, Williams and the Bay of Islands missionaries decided it was time to replace ‘the old tub’. On their own initiative they sold the brig in June 1834 and replaced it with the more seaworthy schooner Columbine.

The Active was sold to the Sydney merchant Robert Campbell who put it back on the Sydney-Calcutta run. The brig was found to be unseaworthy after just two voyages. Though destined to be broken up in Calcutta, the Active was lost at sea with all hands while returning to India for the last time.

Brig Active – 1814. Hansen Family,
Butler, John, Earliest New Zealand: The Journal and Correspondence of the Rev. John Butler, Palamontein and Petherick, Masterton, 1927
Elder, J. (ed.), The Letters and Journals of Samuel Marsden, 1765-1838, Coulls Somerville Wilkie and A.H. Reed Dunedin, 1932
Nicholas, John, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand Performed in the Years 1814 and 1815, James Black, London, 1817
Williams, Henry, The Early Journals of Henry Williams 1826–1840, L.M. Rogers (comp.), Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1961
Williams, W. and J., The Turanga Journals 1840–1850, Frances Porter (ed.), Price Milburn, Wellington, 1974.

The Active off North Cape in 1814, John Nicholas, Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand Performed in the Years 1814 and 1815, James Black, London,1817, Frontspiece.
Henry Williams, The Early Journal of Henry Williams, Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1961, Frontspiece
John Williams, ‘The War Dance’, 1859, PUBLE-0144-1 front, Alexander Turnbull Library Wellington.
Richard Horner, ‘The Active’, 1988, Brig Active – 1814. Hansen Family

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