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Murihiku: A History of the South Island of New Zealand and the Islands Adjacent and Lying to the South, from 1642 to 1835

The Active's Gang, 1810–1813

The Active's Gang, 1810–1813.

The Active was a most unfortunate craft. She combined sealing and whaling, and had been driven ashore at Western Port in Bass Strait on 11th June, 1809, but succeeded in getting off damaged. She returned to Sydney and effected the necessary repairs. On Monday, 11th December, 1809, she sailed from Sydney never to return. This ship's notices, as she went to meet her doom on the rugged New Zealand coast, are of interest to us now as we gather together the scraps of her history.

“Wanted for the brig Active, shortly about to sail on a promising and pleasant voyage, several active able men, who will find proper encouragement. Apply to Captain Bader.”

Captain John Bader also advertised for “a person capable of the duty of a chief mate.” Not only was the captain troubled at sea by the elements, but the Sydney thieves stole his ship's fittings while the vessel was being repaired, and a reward of twenty guineas was offered for information which would lead to a conviction.

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Sailing from Sydney, the ill-fated brigantine made the West Coast of New Zealand, and on 16th February, 1810, left a sealing gang in that wild region. The gang was really left upon an island about a mile and a half from the mainland, and the vessel sailed for Sydney never again to be heard of, and all record of the brig or of her men appears to have vanished.

On 15th December, 1813, Captain Grono, in the Governor Bligh, arrived in Sydney from the West Coast Sounds with 14,000 seal skins and about 5 tons of elephant oil. With him also returned the men who had been left on the New Zealand coast as abovementioned. The shipping news of Sydney thus chronicles the event:

“The Active went from hence the 11th of December, 1808 (?1809) and having landed her people on an island about a mile and a half from the main of New Zealand, sailed again for Port Jackson, but doubtless perished by the way and has never since been heard of. The people who were left as above described were reduced to the necessity of subsisting for nearly four (?three) years upon the seal, when in season, and at other times upon a species of the fern, part of which they roasted or boiled, and other parts were obliged to eat undressed, owing to a nausea it imbibed from any culinary process. They were left upon a small island with a very scanty allowance of provisions, and the vessel was to come to Port Jackson for a further supply. They had a whale boat, and their only edged implements consisted of an axe, an adze, and a cooper's drawing knife. In a short time they procured 11,000 seal skins, part of which Mr. Grono has brought up. In hopes of finding upon the main some succour which the small island did not afford, they went thither, but were nearly lost by the way, as some of the lower streaks of the boat were near falling out, owing, as was imagined, to the nails being of cast iron. On their safe arrival, however, they found an old boat on the beach, which it subsequently appeared had been left there by Mr. Grono on a former voyage. With the aid of this additional boat, when both page 214 repaired, they projected an excursion towards some of the more frequented sealing places, and were on the point of setting out when a tremendous hurricane in one night destroyed the boats, and put an end to their hope of relief. The only nutritive the place afforded was a species of the fern root, resembling a yam when cut, and possessing some of the properties of the cassada. This they could only procure at a distance of six or seven miles from their hut, which was near the sea side, and had it been plentiful would have been a desirable substitute for better diet; but it was unfortunately so sparingly scattered among other shrubs so as to be found with difficulty; and they solemnly affirm that they have for a week at a time had neither this nor any other food whatever. With the assistance of a canoe made up of seal skins a party visited their former island, and found their stacks of skins much injured by the weather, but did all they could for their preservation. This was their seal depot, and out of the usual season they now and then found a solitary straggler, in some instances when they were so reduced by famine as to be scarcely capable of securing those that Providence threw in their way. With their axe, adze, and drawing knife they afterwards built a small boat, but with intense labour, as without saws they could only cut one board out of each tree; the hoops upon their provision casks were beaten into nails; and by the same patient and laborious process they at length projected the building of a small vessel, and had provided 80 half inch boards for the purpose, all cut in the way above described. The fortunate accident of Mr. Grono's touching there has however preserved them from further suffering and peril.”3

On his return the mate of the Active offered for sale the seal skins brought from the scene of their long imprisonment and inserted the following advertisement in the Sydney paper.4

“This is to give Notice that several Thousand Prime Salted Seal Skins, which have been advertised page 215 “for Sale by Private Contract, with Application to Mr. Richard Jones, will be Sold by Auction, by Mr. Bevan. on Wednesday next, the 16th Instant, unless in the meantime disposed of by Private Contract.”

No further indication is given of the spot where the men were rescued, nor is it possible to locate it with absolute certainty. “An island about a mile and a half from the main” might describe one of the islands in Dusky Sound, but the absence of food as mentioned by the party, would hardly fit in with the plenty described by navigators during their stay there. Nor does it agree with the expressed intention of setting out for the more frequented sealing places, as Dusky was a very commanding place to be left in. Rather does the above reference point to one of the northern sounds and the expedition as contemplating coming south. Secretary Island in Thompson Sound would answer the description. Grono, we know from previous information, was in the habit of visiting this sound; he in fact named it. Thompson Sound connects with Doubtful and forms an island—Secretary Island—the only one north of Dusky of any size. Knowing this, the fact that one of Grono's boats was picked up, would indicate that the men were left on Secretary Island. Failing this it is impossible to say where the gang was stationed. On comparing the above account of the loss of the Active with the advertisements of her sailing from Sydney it will be seen that the report is one year out and that the men were three, not four years, in the inhospitable Sound.