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.