Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fire Water, the Sydney Cove shipwreck

Over four chilly nights in June this year, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority staged a creative interpretation of the voyage of the Sydney Cove as told though the eyes of an 11-year-old Indian-Australian girl. During the event Campbells Cove was alive with food stalls, music and markets as the story was retold in dramatic Bollywood-style.

The Sydney Cove is the 8th oldest known shipwreck in Australian waters, and the first merchant vessel lost after the establishment of the colony at Sydney. The ramifications of this wreck were far-reaching—from its contribution to the development of the first export industry and the discovery of coal on the south coast to the exploration of Bass Strait and the beginnings of Tasmanian settlement.

The Sydney Cove was built in Calcutta under the original name Begum Shaw. She was designed for short coastal voyages and traded between ports on the Persian Gulf and India. In 1796 she was bought by the agency house (private trading firm) of Campbell and Clark, refitted and renamed in honour of her destination. She was loaded with one of the first speculative cargoes dispatched to Sydney, meaning the cargo wasn't ordered from the colony, but sent to be sold on arrival. As there were no free merchants resident in NSW, the purchase and distribution of cargo had been monopolised by those with access to currency, namely the officers of the NSW (Rum) Corps.

Figure 1. The Borrowdale, a ship the same size and rigging as the Sydney Cove. (Australian National Maritime Museum)

In November 1796 the Sydney Cove left Calcutta bound for the colony. The risk of the voyage was considerable as the route was arduous and largely unexplored and the returns of trading with the new colony were uncertain. On board was approximately 7,000 gallons (31,500 litres) of alcohol, mostly rum, sacks of rice and sugar, tobacco, salted meat, Chinese ceramics and tea, as well as barrels of tar, casks of vinegar, footwear, soap, candles, textiles and a range of smaller items. Also included in the cargo was a musical organ and a horse drawn buggy.

Figure 2. Chinese ceramics excavated from the Sydney Cove. (Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service)

The crew was made up of European officers and 44 Indian sailors known as lascars. The employment of Indian sailors was firmly established as there was a lack of European sailors in India. The lascars were poorly paid, poorly fed and poorly treated so even though more lascar crew were needed to man a ship, it was still cheaper than employing European sailors. However, it was unusual for lascars to undertake voyages into unknown cold southern oceans as they were mainly employed on short coastal cruises. The Fire Water event picked up on the lascar crew and told the story through the eyes of a young girl descended from one of these men.

The shipwreck itself was not a dramatic event. The ship had been leaking since December and the crew were manning the pumps constantly. The cold rough Southern Ocean was punishing on the ship and crew. She lost several sails and the leak became so bad there was more than 4 feet of water in the pump well. The cold and exhausting constant pumping and sail handling pushed the lascar crew beyond endurance. Five of them died from the cold and their exertions, and the crew had the beginnings of scurvy.

The ship sighted the west coast of Tasmania on 1 February 1797 and was to round the southern tip of the island as Bass Strait was unknown at this time. By 8 February she was on the northern and last leg of the journey however the constant bad weather had reopened leaks and ruptured the hull. This time the crew were unable to keep pace with the water and the ship was lightened by jettisoning bags of sugar, heavy bales and boxes.

Figure 3. Mathew Flinders map of Preservation and Rum Islands and the wreck and camp sites (British Museum)

The Captain Guy Hamilton had to beach his vessel and on 9 February in 6 metres of water she ran aground between two islands in the Bass Strait. The larger of the islands where they set up a camp earned the name Preservation Island. The smaller became known as Rum Island as the alcohol stores were moved there for safe storage after the crew were found breaching the rum barrels.

Figure 4. Broken alcohol bottles from camp site. Although Hamilton tried to stop the crew from plundering the alcohol, archaeologists found many alcohol bottles at both cargo storage areas and the campsite, indicating the crew were indulging. (Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service)

The wreck site was off very sparsely used shipping channels, so there was no chance of a ship passing close enough to be alerted to their plight. No one in Sydney was expecting the ship and the agency at Calcutta would not learn of the wrecking for months so the crew had no choice but to organise their own rescue. The ship’s carpenter set to work on the longboat to repair and strengthen it for the voyage ahead. On 27 February a party of 17, including 12 of the lascar crew, departed on the long and dangerous journey to Sydney.

The longboat sailed more than 300 kilometres to the north and sighted the mainland on 1 March. However when they attempted to land in the rough surf the longboat was irreparably damaged, leaving the crew cut off from Preservation Island and facing an unknown overland journey of 600 kilometres to Port Jackson. The crew had actually come ashore at the northern end of Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria. The journey north would take two months and only three men would survive it. On 15 May the three men were picked up at Port Hacking and arrived in Sydney the next day. They notified Governor Hunter of the shipwrecking and preparations were made to rescue the rest of the crew from Preservation Island and salvage the ship’s cargo.

The schooner Francis and the sloop Eliza were despatched on 30 May and arrived at Preservation Island on 10 June. The ships were loaded with some of the salvaged cargo and crew and set off back to Sydney. Five of the lascar crew, under the command of trek survivor John Bennet, remained on the island to protect the last of the cargo. On the first day of the return voyage the two ships were separated by a heavy gale. Only the Francis arrived back in Sydney after a slow journey through very heavy weather. The Eliza was lost with all hands. The Francis was to visit the wreck site several times for salvage operations.

On 20 August some of the Sydney Cove crew departed the colony to return to India to report on the loss of the vessel. The Captain Guy Hamilton remained in Sydney to arrange the salvage and sale of the ship’s cargo. He had trouble finding another vessel to return to the wreck site due to the lack of suitable craft in the colony. He also had trouble disposing of the alcohol due to Government opposition to its sale. The Governor had previously prevented other ships from off-loading their spirits and in normal circumstances this would have applied to the Sydney Cove’s cargo as well. It was known in the colony that the majority of the alcoholic cargo was still at the wreck site and three months after Hamilton arrived in Sydney, a group of convicts stole a boat with the intention of reaching the wreck. As this was the 2nd incident within a month, the Governor arranged to purchase the spirits for the commissariat.

The wrecking of the Sydney Cove and the subsequent events had far reaching effects. The survivors of the overland trek reported discovering coal about 50 kilometres south of Port Jackson. The southern coastlines were charted and were partly responsible for further explorations by George Bass, including the discovery of Bass Strait. In January 1798 Bass attempted to reach the wreck site but was prevented by poor weather. He saw smoke on an island close to Wilsons Promontory and upon investigation discovered seven starving and miserable convicts—the men who stole the boat the previous year in the vain hope of repairing the Sydney Cove and escaping overseas.

In February Lt Matthew Flinders accompanied the Francis on another salvage voyage to Preservation Island. During this trip he surveyed and charted the features around the islands and also noted a number of seal colonies. Robert Campbell would exploit these colonies and sealskin became Australia’s first export industry.

The loss of the Sydney Cove did not deter the agency Campbell and Clarke. They acquired another vessel and renamed it the Hunter, after the NSW Governor. Robert Campbell, the younger brother of the senior partner of the agency, accompanied the ship to wind up the affairs of the Sydney Cove and sell the Hunter’s cargo. He arrived in Sydney on 10 June 1798, just before the death of the Sydney Cove’s Captain, Guy Hamilton.

While in Sydney, Campbell purchased the lease on a waterside house and property and arranged an agent to acquire more land for him. He also attempted to gain Government and supply contracts. The stay convinced him of the colony’s potential and gave him some idea about the most suitable cargo to send. He left Sydney and returned to Calcutta to convince merchants of the value of sending further cargo to the colony. Campbell came back to Sydney in 1800 to permanently represent the agency. He built his wharves, warehouses and house on the waterfront land he had acquired, which subsequently became known as Campbells Cove, the site of the 2010 Fire Water event.

Figure 5. Fire Water event, June 2010, Campbells Cove, Sydney. (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority)


Mike Nash, Flinders University. Investigation of a Survivors Camp from the Sydney Cove Shipwreck 2004

Mike Nash, Navarine Publishing. Cargo for the Colony. 2001