I’d added Grantlee Kieza’s biography of the woman on the Australian $20 note to my ‘Must Read’ list from the moment I heard about it.
Apart from the obvious (my abiding interest in Australian history and especially women’s history), I have three points of connection with the subject, Mary Reibey:
1. She hailed originally from near Manchester in England, where my ancestor Elizabeth Lee was also born and raised,
2. Like another of my ancestors, Mary’s crime which had her transported to Australia was the theft of a horse, and
3. She was a contemporary of yet another ancestor, Jane Longhurst. Like Mary, Jane was an emancipated convict in early colonial Sydney who ‘made good’, managing business affairs and a large family within the male-dominated world of nineteenth century Sydney.
Mary showed her redoubtable spirit from an early age, running away from a position as maid in a boarding school and in a flight of youthful fantasy, stealing a horse which she thought would be her ticket to a financially independent life.
Of course she was discovered, arrested and tried for the crime; at first receiving the death sentence, later commuted to transportation to the penal colony of NSW. The startling thing about her time in gaol was that she’d been dressed as a boy – and she managed to keep her sex hidden from her male cellmates in a crowded prison! In my view that would take some chutzpah, not to mention ingenuity.
She arrived in the colony full of trepidation as to what life in this frightening place might have in store for a youngster just fifteen years old.
The author paints a fascinating and vivid picture of convict life in Sydney and Parramatta : housing, clothing, rations, and living and working conditions, along with the many larger-than-life characters that peopled the early days of the colonial period.
The class system of Britain was transported here along with their unwanted criminals, and this is seen in attitudes by free settlers towards the convicts.
Also, people in authority struggled to understand many behaviours of the convicts; why did they make such poor choices (such as getting drunk and fighting) which they must know would result in punishment? To middle class eyes this was inexplicable. Why would people jeopardise their futures in this way? To convicts, most of whom came from dire circumstances, having a good time while one could grab it was entirely sensible. Who knew when the next catastrophe could strike? You could die of a disease, accident or violence tomorrow. May as well enjoy tonight while you could.
Mary, however, kept her head down and out of trouble. She married Tom Reibey, a free settler with an entrepreneurial bent, who was involved in trade and real estate. They had a large family together, but Tom nominated his wife to manage the business dealings during his long absences from the colony on trading voyages. She was wife, mother, and trusted co-manager of the family’s business affairs.
After her husband’s death, Mary continued with the various business interests, shipping and trading, buying, selling and leasing real estate, amassing an even greater fortune.
She is the ‘remarkable’ Mrs Reibey because all this activity was at a time when work options for women were severely curtailed and no women were expected to see the inside of a board room or business negotiation. Much to the surprise of her fellow settlers, ‘Mrs Reibey’ proved to be a shrewd negotiator, driving a hard bargain, with a nose for the next opportunity. This was how one survived – even thrived – in the cut throat world of the colony.
I got a thrill from seeing my ancestor, Jane Roberts (nee Longhurst) mentioned along with Mary in the section describing the formation of the Bank Of New South Wales – the first bank in the colony. Jane and Mary were among a handful of women investors in that early bank, much to the surprise and confusion of their male counterparts, as the concept of women investors was a foreign one.
There are moments that made me smile, such as Mary answering a charge by a debtor that she was ‘no lady’ by hitting him over the head with her parasol!
There are also tender, heartwarming moments in the book, as when Mary fulfills a long-nursed ambition to make a return visit to her homeland, with emotional reunions with family members in the ‘old country.’ I found myself wondering how reunions between my convict and immigrant ancestors may have played out, should any of them had the wish and the resources to return to England.
The Remarkable Mrs Reibey is a comprehensive and engrossing portrayal of a colonial women who surely deserves her spot on the $20 note. Her portrait, depicting a grandmotherly round-faced woman with spectacles and a lace cap, belies the adventurous and headstrong spirit of the younger Mary, with the endurance and smarts to not only survive, but thrive, in a colonial environment that was well and truly stacked against women.
The Remarkable Mrs Reibey was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2023.
The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.
I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.
The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.
As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.
Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.
The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.
From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.
rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.
I could go on.
What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:
To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.Reaching through History p174
There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.
I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.
On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.
There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:
The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…Reaching through Time p319
Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.
Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.
On finishing this very readable book I can honestly say that I now know a great deal more about owls than when I began it. That wasn’t hard: my main understanding of owls had come from Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter (I’m exaggerating, of course – but only a bit.)
The book is packed with surprising facts about owls, covering topics such as how owls are made (the mating and rearing practices of different species), the bewildering range of kinds of owls and their habitats (at least 260 species and counting), the way their keen sight, acute hearing, impressive camouflage and almost silent flight, all assist in their hunting of prey and their survival.
I found myself trying to follow the instructions about how to imitate the call of a flammulated owl, being simultaneously glad I was alone at the time and amazed that I now knew there was such a thing as a flammulated owl.
The scientific information is pretty fascinating, but what engrossed me was how the author canvassed the ways in which owls have been regarded by humans over centuries and across civilisations. It seems that owls have been associated with wisdom, witchcraft, good and bad luck, prophesy and mythology.
Human connection with owls often has negative consequences, some deliberate, many unintended.
Some cultural traditions, for example, hold that owls must be killed. because they bring misfortune. Throwing an apple core out of your car window can entice small birds or rodents to nibble on it, later attracting an owl which can then end up dead from flying into a moving vehicle. Using poison to kill pests such as rate or mice can also result in poisoned owls when they hunt and eat the rodents.
Hedwig, the owl in the Harry Potter books and movies, resulted in a craze for owls as pets, with the predictable result of abandoned owls when the humans realised that their new ‘pet’ is a wild creature, difficult to keep in a domestic setting. Far from being ‘bird brains’, it is entirely possible that owls possess levels of intelligence we can only guess at, and they do not belong in a cage.
On a more positive note, I learnt that there are people all across the world, professional scientists and ordinary citizens, who are doing what they can to learn about owls, educate others about them, and preserve their habitats.
I thoroughly enjoyed my little journey of learning about these mysterious birds. Here is what the author had to say about an encounter she had with a female Long-eared Owl being studied by an owl expert:
For me, it was an adventure, bright, intense, deeply affecting. That owl had seemed like a messenger from another time and place, like starlight. Being near her somehow made me feel smaller in my body and bigger in my soul.What an Owl Knows p11
I asked Holt why he has devoted the better part of his life to studying these elusive creatures. Because of this, he said, gesturing at her empty path. Because they’re so beautifully adapted to their world, so quiet, invisible, cryptic not just in coloring but in sound, deft in the dark, superb hunters – traits that have evolved over millions of years.
“And,” he said, “because they’re still so full of surprises.”
What an Owl Knows is published by Scribe in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Dementia hit the headlines this week, having achieved the dubious honour of becoming the biggest cause of death in Australia, surpassing heart disease. This guide to what we can do to prevent, prepare, cope and understand the illness is very timely.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician who works at a Melbourne hospital, and the book is peppered with real life anecdotes from her research and practice.
Twenty questions frame the book’s structure and content, including:
What is dementia and are you at risk?
What are the symptoms?
What causes Alzheimer’s?
What is life like for a person living with dementia?
Do people with dementia have the capacity to make decisions?
Can improving diet help to avoid dementia?
How do we live well with dementia?
Most people have been touched by dementia in some way: we have a loved one who lives with the disease, or we know a workmate, neighbour or friend who has been diagnosed, or who cares for someone who has been. So, these very practical questions and the wealth of information included are welcome and useful guides to the illness and what we can expect as it progresses.
There were sections that resonated strongly with me after watching my mother’s decline with the condition. For example, the insidious way it often begins, creeping up slowly at first, often confused with ‘normal’ age-related memory loss:
The onset of dementia is so insidious that it often takes something really obvious, an example of memory loss that is so stark, so unforgiving, that it is impossible to look away. This is often when the reframing begins, when all the little things that were so small in themselves start to coalesce.Before Dementia pp23-24
Other points that especially resonated with me because of my own experience included the nature and role of delirium, the phenomena known as ‘sundowning’, the creation of false memories, and the sometimes-catastrophic effect of hospital admissions,
There is a fair bit of technical information in the chapters to do with the causes and types of dementia. I admit I glazed over a little here. However, I appreciated the author’s desire to translate the latest thinking and discoveries in what is still a contested field, into language that can be read by a non-medical person.
Ethical challenges are presented openly, and it is up to each reader to decide where they stand on issues such as the capacity of a person with dementia to make decisions about their future care and living arrangements, consent for sexual activity, the right to autonomy and independence. A point that strikes me as a tricky but interesting one, is what Dr Kate terms the ‘dignity of risk’:
Living well with dementia means accepting the dignity of risk. Many people with dementia will be able to live independent lives, but they may not be perfectly safe.Before Dementia p295
I appreciated the plea made in this book for adequate funding for aged care services, for recognition of the disadvantages faced in all areas of life by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and for the value of putting into place as many protective measures as possible as early as possible: improved diet, regular exercise, giving up smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, social and cognitive activity.
If I were a patient or a family member, and lucky enough to be a patient of Dr Kate, I am sure that I would value her humanist and person-centred approach to living well with dementia.
While I’m certain that most of us would much prefer NOT to have to think about this disease, and just hope that we or our loved ones won’t ever have to deal with it, I can highly recommend this book. It tackles a difficult subject in a helpful, practical way that removes the ‘overwhelm’ and allows the reader to learn from the experts.
Before Dementia is published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.
Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.
Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)
There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.
Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?
The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.
Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.
Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.
Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.
The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.
The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?
It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:
The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)
Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837
They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)
I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.
Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016
I’m happy to say that my final two reading challenges for 2022 are complete.
For the #AussieAuthor22 challenge, I aimed for the ‘Kangaroo’ level, which meant 12 books by Aussie authors, of which at least 3 had to be by female writers, 3 by male, 3 by an author new to me, and across at least 3 genres.
I showed my (usual) clear bias towards female authors by reading 24 books. 4 books were by male authors, and 16 by authors new to me (which I’m pleased about as I like to expand my choice of authors.) And finally, 12 were from various different genres, including contemporary fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, historical fiction (of course!), history, biography, fantasy and crime. As always, being part of a book group contributes to a wider range of titles and authors than I might otherwise choose (and a big thanks to my book group members for great reading and discussions this year.)
Now to the #histficreadingchallenge:
In 2022 I aimed for the ‘Mediaeval’ level, committing to reading 15 books of historical fiction, which I achieved. Just over 2/3 of those were by female authors. I guess that means that I’m more attracted to historical stories by women – perhaps because of the focus on the lives of women in the past that are so often obscured in both fiction and non-fiction?
And now for 2023:
I’ll be participating in all three challenges from this year again.
For the Historical Fiction Challenge, once again I’ll be going for the ‘Mediaeval’ reader with 15 books.
In the Aussie Author Challenge, my goal will be ‘Kangaroo’ – 12 books.
And for the Non-fiction challenge I’ll again be a ‘Nibbler’ – 6 books from any of the 12 categories.
What have been your reading favourites or achievements this year? What are you aiming for in 2023?
Do let me know in the comments – I always love hearing about other people’s highlights. And happy reading!
This year my Non-fiction reading challenge goal was ‘Nipper’: I undertook to read six non-fiction books from six different listed categories.
The challenge is hosted at Book’d Out (https://bookdout.wordpress.com/2022-nonfiction-reader-challenge/)
I exceeded my goal for number of books read (ten) though fell short in the number of categories. I read four biographies, three memoir, two books on Australian history. This year I hadn’t planned my challenge reading, rather ‘nibbling’ on books of interest or ones that were part of my book group reading.
Regardless, I was pleased to incorporate non-fiction titles into my reading during the year. With reading, as with diet and exercise (and, indeed, life!) balance is a good thing.
There was one big standout book in my list this year: Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. If you are interested in Australian history, this one is must-read. I guarantee you will learn things about this country, and the small island of Tasmania, that you didn’t know.
Thank you to Shelleyrae for the challenge. I am signing up for the 2023 Challenge, again as a ‘Nibbler’, and I’ll try to cover a few more categories next year.
I adore Tasmania, the island state off the southern tip of mainland Australia. One of my special places there is the Freycinet Peninsula and Oyster Bay region, on the east coast. Rimmed by the imposing hills called the Hazards, with pristine bushland and clear turquoise seas, it’s a beautiful part of the country.
How I wish I had known more of the history of this area when I visited.
This peaceful corner of Tasmania was home to the Oyster Bay people, who along with the rest of Tasmania’s First Nations, suffered greatly during the colonisation process in the early 1800’s. As white settlers moved further into the countryside with their animals, putting up fences, turning productive hunting and gathering territory into grazing land, the line of farms moving northwards from Hobart began to meet those coming south from Launceston. Kidnappings and sickening abuses of their women and girls by sealers and whalers fractured the economic and social foundations on which daily life had been based. All this resulted in a hairline crack in Tongerlongeter’s world that would soon become a critical rupture. p69
…as long as there remained some hope of avoiding all-out war, Tongerlongeter and his allies appear to have grudgingly tolerated the strangers’ presence provided they did them no violence. By the middle of the decade, though, enough colonists were actively seeking to harm them that bands like the Poredarame were regularly taking retributive action.Tongerlongeter p87
Tongerlongeter was a leader of the Oyster Bay people who, together with those from further west known as the Big River mob, met this threat head on, with armed and violent resistance. During the 1820’s and early 1830’s the Oyster Bay and Big River war parties launched at least 711 attacks on white farms and property, killing or wounding hundred and damaging or burning huts or homes. Much of this took place close to Hobart and surrounding districts.
Of course, retribution was swift and brutal. The imposition of British law at the start of the colony meant that any resistance was seen as criminal behaviour or rebellion, not warfare against an invading enemy. The infamous ‘Black Line’ in 1830 saw over 2000 settlers, soldiers and convicts walking across country, trying to capture or kill First Nations people. Not just warriors but old people, women and children were caught up in acts of retribution and killed, injured or captured.
It is a story of terrible brutality with atrocities committed on both sides. I had known something of the so-called ‘Black Wars’ of the colonial period, and the ‘Black Line’. Tongerlongeter fills out the narrative, painting a picture of the main protagonists, both white and Black.
The sad ending to this particular chapter came with the exile of Tongerlongeter with his band and others, to a settlement on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. In an all-too-familiar story, illness and death cut a swathe through a people already grieving for their country and their loved ones.
In this book, Reynolds and Clements argue that the actions of Tongerlongeter and his people should be seen as a military campaign of resistance against armed invaders. They were fighting for their country and their way of life. Not so different, really, from the Allies fighting against the Nazi invasion of much of Europe during the 1940’s. The Black Line was, according to the authors, the largest domestic military offensive on Australian soil. If we look at what happened from this angle, it is an easy step to regard Tongerlongeter and other leaders as war heroes.
The book questions why Tongerlongeter and his compatriots are not remembered in the same way as other Australians since that time, who were killed or injured in war? Why have the wars of resistance in Tasmania and elsewhere never been included in Australia’s official list of armed conflicts?
Another point they make is that the ‘Black Wars’ in Tasmania had far-reaching effects both locally and internationally. For example, the fear that the Tasmanian wars inspired amongst settlers and the British government brought about considerations of how to come to agreements with First Nations peoples before new colonies were established – with of course, mixed results. A powerful humanitarian lobby was growing which eventually led to the abolition of slavery.
I was interested in the reported views of commentators in the 1830’s and 1840’s, some from far away Britain, which canvassed more nuanced, honest and critical views of Empire and its consequences, than are expressed by some people in Australia today.
I would highly recommend Tongerlongeter as a book to get you thinking; a narrative which presents another view of Australian history.
Tongerlongeter was published by NewSouth in 2021.
Upon opening Australian author Patti Miller’s latest book, I immediately began thinking about my own friends, past and present. I have been fortunate to have experienced sustained, deep, nurturing friendships throughout my life, but of course there have been some that have fallen away as the years went on – mostly gradually through changed life circumstances, but one or two abruptly and somewhat painfully.
True Friends is an exploration of friendship but also of memory: when considering the people and events in our past, what Patti Miller calls the ‘questionable vault of memory’ will inevitably get things wrong, or in a muddled order. Tightly linked with memories are sounds, smells, tastes, places, feelings; even if we get some facts wrong, these things bind the event or moment to the memory and help to bring it alive once again.
First there is the original experience, but even at that stage, before interpretation or memory, so much is unobserved, unrecorded. A few moments of colour and sound are partially registered and then all that is left are the neurotransmitters floating from axon to dendrite, hopefully creating a neural pathway. The lovely, faulty, biochemical science of friendship.True Friends p167
She describes the epic poem Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets up to two thousand years before Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey were written, as the first story – and it is, essentially, all about friendship. The need for connection, contact and understanding with another is a fundamental trait from the deep past of humanity right through to modern times. Thinking about this, I wondered why there have not been many more non-fiction books on the topic of friends.
This book is about friendships generally, and the author’s friendships specifically, but it is told through the framing device of one friendship in particular which did not last, and which ended in a way that left her feeling bewildered and hurt. She describes the period of time during which she struggled to recognise the end of the relationship as ‘the long bewilderment.’
I’m certain that many reading this book will recognise the pain of this.
Overall, though, the book is a hymn to friends and the richness they add to our lives, in all their complexities and challenges:
For me, loving friendship is not a fusion with another, but it is a rickety swing bridge to a separate being, and even though I know it can fall away in to the abyss, the urge to step onto it is always there…when I am with a friend, I am woven into the human mystery.True Friends p279
I have enjoyed every book by Patti Miller that I have read, and this one is no exception. It is a book to savour, one that made me laugh and sigh in recognition, and that I continued to think about long after I’d closed the cover.
True Friends is published by University of Queensland Press in 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Three Sheets to the Wind is a re-telling of the amazing true story of shipwrecked sailors who, in 1796, walked 600 miles through uncharted territory from the far southeast coast of Australia, almost to Sydney Town, before being rescued.
Adam Courtenay has placed this event in the historical and social contexts of its time: a new (and struggling) colony on the edge of the known world, run by a succession of English governors who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to weaken the firm hold over its economy by the group of military officers known as the ‘Rum Corps.’
Alternating chapters allow the reader to follow the voyage of the ship Sydney Cove from its origins in Calcutta, to its wreck just off Tasmania. Its cargo was purely commercial: goods to be sold at a profit to the settlers in New South Wales – and most prized of all was the alcohol loaded into the ship’s hold, especially the 7,000 gallons of rum. This liquor had become an unofficial currency in the colony, to the detriment of all aspects of daily life, and its trade was monopolised by the Rum Corps, despite official efforts to discourage and/or control its import and sale.
You may have read Rum by Matt Murphy, published in 2021. If so, you will know the network of corruption and cronyism that the control and sale of this liquor encouraged and enabled.
Into this heady environment, Campbell & Clark, the Scottish owners of the Sydney Cove sent their cargo, hoping for a tidy profit and to establish a trading presence in the colony. The monetary value of the alcohol helps to explain why the ship’s master, Hamilton, and the ‘supercargo’ (responsible for its safe delivery) William Clark, went to such lengths to preserve the cargo when the ship foundered.
Courtenay gives us gripping account of the shipwrecks – plural, because after escaping the sinking ship in the longboat, the crew endured a second wreck while crossing Bass Strait, the often turbulent stretch of water that divides mainland Australia with the smaller island of Tasmania. (Keep in mind that at this point in time, Europeans did not know for sure if Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called, was an island or if it was joined to the mainland. They were literally in uncharted waters, because even the renowned English explorer and cartographer James Cook had not thoroughly investigated this area on his earlier voyage.
Seventeen survivors set out on the trek north to Sydney. They were a mix of European and Indian-born sailors, known as ‘lascars’. (The treatment of the lascars by the Europeans is a story in itself.) The journey was recorded by Clark in a pocket notebook he carried with him. Gradually the seventeen became seven, then reduced further until only three were finally rescued just south of Sydney.
What is most notable about this story, I think, is the account by Clark of the group’s interactions with the First Nations people they encountered along the way. They passed through the country of at least six Indigenous clans and experienced both generous assistance and firm warnings from them. If it had not been for the local people, the travelers would have died from starvation or exposure many times. They were given food, shown shortcuts, and sometimes helped across rivers on canoes. On other occasions, though:
Clark soon realised their actions were a warning to keep off certain tracts of land – they were not there to kill the foreigners but rather to protect their country. Clark and his men weren’t being guided through these lands: they were being forcibly marched through them.Three Sheets to the Wind p184
There is much to both admire and deplore about this story. The party of sailors demonstrated enormous personal courage and strength to endure the trials they were subjected to. Clark’s account appears to hint at his changing view of the First Australians he met: from ‘barbarous hordes’ to generous and kind individuals. The observations by Clark and others of numerous seal colonies and plentiful seams of coal instigated the environmental disasters of the sealing, whaling and coal mining industries. And the voyage and subsequent trek north inspired more exploration, by George Bass and Mathew Flinders, among others – which both opened up more territory for the settlers and spelt the end of the sovereignty and sustainable lifestyles of First Australians.
Three Sheets to the Wind is a detailed and thought provoking account of an amazing story from our history. And I love the clever title: three sheets to the wind being a nautical term that also alludes to drunkenness.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.