Voyage of the Brilliant

The Dream That Was Cornwallis
The Manukau Settlement and the Voyage of the barque Brilliant

In 1833, realising the value of the Kauri forests on the shores of the Manukau Harbour, Thomas Mitchell, a trader from Sydney, established a trading post on the Puponga Peninsula. He later built a "substantial house" and brought his wife and children over from Sydney to live there. On January 11th 1836 Mitchell purchased "...the whole of the Auckland isthmus" from Apihai Te Kawau, a chief of the Ngati Whatua and from other local chiefs. For this he paid the princely amount of a quantity of merchandise to the value of 160. On Mitchell's death two years later his family returned to Sydney where his wife, through the trustee appointed to look after the estate, sold the land in New Zealand to the New Zealand Manukau and Waitemata Company for 500. This organisation had been formed, along with the New Zealand Company, out of the ruins of the New Zealand Association to acquire valuable tracts of land on the harbours of Manukau and Waitemata in the northern island of New Zealand.

Although the Company owned the land before the arrival of its sister company in New Zealand, they decided against immediate settlement because the Company considered it proper to refrain from incurring the responsibility of selling land to intending emigrants, or inducing them to go out until Her Majesty's government had determined the course to be adopted with respect to New Zealand and also until they should be in possession of reports from Captain William Cornwallis Symonds who had undertaken to proceed to that country for the purpose of ensuring authentic information as to the extent and capabilities of the Company's property. In fact the Company's property was very extensive indeed. It covered all of Auckland from the Waitakere Ranges in the west to the Tamaki River in the east and from the northern shores of the Manukau north to the Waitemata. Its core, and the proposed location of the city of Cornwallis, was Puponga Point (the Puponga Peninsula).

Finally, in May 1840, the Company issued its prospectus to entice purchasers to take up land in the proposed settlement. In its 40 pages the prospectus spoke of opportunities for trade and shipping (to Australia principally but also to the Home Country), of whaling, flax, timber and agriculture. It promoted a fertile soil and a salubrious climate congenial to European constitutions and those who went there sickly are soon restored to health, and the healthy become robust, and the robust, fat. The report previously forwarded by Captain Symonds spoke, too, of the benefits of the area for settlement and the proposal went ahead. The land was divided into sections comprising  100 country areas and one town lot for the price of 101 per section. Interested parties could obtain information from the head office of the Company at No. 6 Northumberland Street, Edinburgh, or at No. 6 Waterloo Place, London.

More than 80 (of 220) sections were thus sold to buyers in England and Scotland and the barque Brilliant was fitted out for a voyage to the Manukau to prepare and lay out the settlement of Cornwallis. She left Glasgow on December 28th 1840 and the Clyde 2 days later. Important though the voyage was, its beginning was hardly auspicious. On day one Brilliant almost ran aground at Rothesay Bay near the Firth of Clyde and put into Cork on the southern Irish coast to be checked over. Here the Captain, Officers, Crew and some passengers left the ship amid concerns as to her seaworthiness and doubts about her ability to make the voyage safely to her destination. David Ritchie took command of the vessel, signing on fresh officers and crew and the Brilliant once again set sail for the Manukau.

Stopping at Sierra Leone, Cape Town, Melbourne (where several more passengers left the long suffering vessel) and Hobart, the Brilliant finally made her destination on October 29th 1841, fully 10 months after departing Glasgow. Even on reaching Manukau Heads a few days earlier the going was not easy for Brilliant. When it was found that the channel she was following was not deep enough to accommodate her she was anchored. The only chart Captain Ritchie had with him was a pencil sketch of the Harbour Entrance so he sent off one of the ship's boats to find a more appropriate means of entering the harbour.

If it was a small town, a village or even a row of wooden houses the remaining 27 passengers hoped to see when they came to anchor off the long sandy beach at Puponga, they were sadly disappointed. Raupo huts were hastily being erected by local Maori on the bare and unsurveyed land. Indeed there was dispute, even, as to their right to occupy the sections for which they had paid and of which they expected to take possession. The Company had yet to prove its claim to the land purchased back in 1838 and this possession was still in dispute. On approach to the office of the Colonial Secretary it was agreed that the immigrants should be allowed to settle at Cornwallis on the express understanding that they occupy such land on sufferance only until the pleasure of the Secretary of State shall be known. If the claim were disallowed, those occupying the land by permission, would be allowed one month to remove their houses. To buy the title to land on the other side of the world, to endure the hardships and suffering of a protracted sea voyage and to then be told that possession of your land hangs in the balance would be enough to cause many to collect their possessions and return home. But to those who came on the Brilliant, and perhaps because of the suffering they had already endured, this was one more challenge to overcome. They set to work with a spirit to lay out the township of Cornwallis as they had dreamed it would be, as they expected it and as they wanted it.

Two further vessels, the Osprey and the Louisa Campbell were sent by the Company to bring further emigrants to the Manukau. The Osprey, a three masted schooner under command of Captain Sedgwick, sailed to Auckland with general cargo and then to the Manukau where it unloaded a steam-powered sawmill to be erected by the tradesmen she had on board her. The Louisa Campbell, a barque under Captain Darby, sailed also to Auckland to land merchandise and then around to the Manukau with her passengers. Before these two vessels arrived, however, a tragedy was to further jolt the company from its idyll and create some major setbacks. On an errand of mercy to help Mrs Hamlin, the wife of the Missionary living at Orua Bay who had become ill, Captain William Cornwallis Symonds was drowned. As Dr Ellis was away, Captain Symonds obtained medical supplies and proceeded to Orua Bay in one of the ships boats. A sudden squall blew up which upset the boat and only one of the five men in her, a Maori oarsman, survived. Of the Company, Captain Symonds, James Adams and Mr McAlpine were drowned.

Following the tragedy Lachlan McLachlan took charge of the Company's affairs but his lack of local knowledge including of the circumstances and language of the local Maori, hampered progress of the settlement of the colony's affairs. Captain Theophilus Heale, former master of the New Zealand Company's ship, Aurora, was appointed agent for the Manukau Company. Captain Heale, however, was overseas at the time and the Brilliant immigrants were to battle on under their own steam without the comfortable assistance of one familiar with the people and conditions of this South Pacific land.

In July 1843 the mill, the only industry in Cornwallis and its chief source of employment, closed down. Thus the death knell of a brave, audacious, ambitious and, yes, even cheeky expedition was sounded. While many an optimistic opinion was held for Cornwallis in the early years, by 1843 opinions had changed and some scathing remarks were published. While some of the settlers did remain until the 1850's but in 1846 the Land Claims Commission awarded only one tenth of the original area to the Manukau Company because it was deemed that chief Apihai Te Kawau had not had rights to the land in the first place. The settlement all but folded. In 1855 Henry Sewell obtained power of attorney over land settlements at Cornwallis but following his untimely death the 1,927 acres remained unclaimed for almost 50 years. In 1903 it was bought by John Mitchell McLachlan, the son of Cornwallis settler Lachlan McLachlan, whose will directed that it become a public park. To commemorate this important event in the history of New Zealand a monument has been built on the highest point of the Puponga peninsula. This monument ...commemorates the attempt to found the settlement of Cornwallis, the arrival of the ships Brilliant, Osprey and Louisa Campbell in the Manukau Harbour, and the settlers who, after many setbacks were forced through no fault of their own, to abandon the township of Cornwallis.

What if the Company had confirmed its right to the land bought from Mrs Mitchell? What if the land had been properly prepared? What if Captain Symonds had not met with an untimely death? What if the Government had approved the original 19,000 acre claim? These and many other questions from the past will arise and, in all probability, will never be answered, but will serve to add intrigue, substance and import to the history of New Zealand. The settlers were, in the long run, treated rather well by the Government. For every 1 that they had invested in their claims at Manukau the Treasury issued them with scrip credit to the value of 4 with which they could take up land to the equivalent value elsewhere in the country.

Copyright Denise & Peter 2001