The reconstitution of [Mn]-hydrogenases using a series of MnI complexes is described. These complexes are designed to have an internal base or pro-base that may participate in metal–ligand cooperative catalysis or have no internal base or pro-base. Only MnI complexes with an internal base or pro-base are active for H2 activation; only [Mn]-hydrogenases incorporating such complexes are active for hydrogenase reactions. These results confirm the essential role of metal–ligand cooperation for H2 activation by the MnI complexes alone and by [Mn]-hydrogenases. Owing to the nature and position of the internal base or pro-base, the mode of metal–ligand cooperation in two active [Mn]-hydrogenases is different from that of the native [Fe]-hydrogenase. One [Mn]-hydrogenase has the highest specific activity of semi-synthetic [Mn]- and [Fe]-hydrogenases. This work demonstrates reconstitution of active artificial hydrogenases using synthetic complexes differing greatly from the native active site.