The Loss of the Sydney Cove – 1797

A barque caught in heavy weather. Source: Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, 1856.

In May 1797 a fishing party returned to Sydney with more than their daily catch. They had found three shipwreck survivors south of Botany Bay who told them that the merchant ship Sydney Cove had been wrecked somewhere far to the south.  The survivors had trekked over 600 kms seeking help for their crewmates who were still stranded with the ship.

On 10 November 1796, the 250-ton Sydney Cove had sailed from Calcutta with her hold full of speculative goods and produce the owners hoped to sell in Sydney.   The crew numbering close to fifty men were a mix of Indian and European seamen under the command of Captain Guy Hamilton.   About a month out, as she bore south through the Indian Ocean, she was caught in a terrible storm and began taking on water.    Initially the leak was easily managed with the pumps, so Hamilton continued on his course to round Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and head north again on to Sydney.  

By January 1797, as they sailed into the latitudes south of Tasmania they were hit by another powerful storm.   The leak began to worsen, and the pumps had to be worked continuously to stop the ship from sinking.   

As they headed up Tasmania’s east coast they encountered yet more wild weather and heavy seas.   By now water was pouring into the hold faster than the men at the pumps could clear it.   The barque was slowly sinking.    The captain ordered all non-essential gear to be jettisoned to lighten the load but that only put off the inevitable.

By now it was 9 February and the water was lapping at the lower-deck hatches.   Captain Hamilton saw he had no choice but to beach his ship to save her from foundering in deep water.    If that were to happen he would not only lose his ship and its precious cargo but much of his crew for they would not all fit on the longboat and small dinghy available to them. He found a sandy beach on what is today called Preservation Island in the Furneaux group and ran her ashore.    Although they had saved the ship from sinking, their troubles were far from over.

No illustration of the Sydney Cove exists but it likely looked similar to this example. Source: Nautical Dictionary by Arthur Young, published in 1863.

Exhausted from constant bailing and sailing so long through rough seas, the crew nonetheless unloaded much of the ship’s stores and cargo.   Hamilton found he had to remove the rum to a neighbouring island to prevent his men from pillaging it.  Captain Hamilton organised his crew for a prolonged stay for they had come ashore at a very remote part of the world. The crew built shelters using sails and spars to give them refuge from the elements.   They were each rationed to one cup of rice per day and though they sank a well and found water it proved barely drinkable.   However, their immediate needs were met.  Then thoughts turned to their rescue.  

If they were ever to leave Preservation Island they would have to send for help. It was agreed that the First Mate, Hugh Thomson would lead a group of 17 men north in the longboat intending to sail along the New South Wales coast until they reached Sydney.   Captain Hamilton and the remaining crew, numbering about 30, would remain with the ship.

Several days after setting off, the longboat was driven ashore on Ninety-Mile beach where it was smashed to pieces.    Thomson and his men escaped with their lives but little else.   With no way to return to the Sydney Cove, they had no option but to continue on to Sydney, 600kms away, on foot.   

Thomson hugged the coast knowing that as long as they kept the sea on their right, they would eventually reach the small settlement.   However, that meant crossing many wide river mouths and negotiating any number of rocky promontories along the way.   The journey was gruelling and took a heavy toll on the men.      Encounters with the indigenous peoples varied in nature.   Some provided the castaways with food and water while others were less sympathetic but allowed them to pass unhindered.   Yet others set upon the interlopers trespassing on their land. Their numbers dwindled as they fell victim to the harsh and unfamiliar terrain and attacks.

The Sydney Cove party as depicted by Smiths’ Weekly in 1939. Smith’s Weekly 30 Sep 1939 p. 8.

By late April, when they were finally found by fishermen about 20kms south of Botany Bay, there were just three men left.     The survivors were attended to and taken the rest of the way to Sydney by boat.   On learning of the loss, Governor Hunter ordered vessels to be sent to rescue the remaining Sydney Cove men and salvage what cargo they could.

After being marooned for some four months Captain Hamilton and the rest of the crew were in dire straits.   Winter was fast approaching. Their shelters had been battered by successive storms and now had gaping tears offering the men little protection from the bitter weather.    They had been able to supplement their rice ration with seabirds nesting on the island, but their diet still barely sustained life.    To add to their sense of abandonment, they had seen several ships pass in the distance but had been unable to alert any of them to their presence.   But rescue was finally at hand.

On 10 June the sloop Eliza sailed into view and dropped anchor.   A short time later the schooner Francis, under the command of Lt Matthew Flinders, joined her.   Both had left Sydney 10 days earlier under Governor Hunter’s orders.      The two small ships loaded as much of the salvaged cargo as they dared, leaving five volunteers behind to watch over the remaining goods until they could be collected at a later date.    Captain Hamilton and his men boarded the Francis and Eliza and they headed for Sydney.

The weather was no less kind to them on their final passage to Sydney.   It took 15 days of hard sailing through storms and high seas for the Francis to reach Port Jackson.   The Eliza never made it home and was presumed to have sunk in the terrible weather with the loss of her own crew plus eight of the shipwreck survivors.   In total, about half of the Sydney Cove’s crew lost their lives.

The shipwreck is historically significant for the trek undertaken by Thomson and the others.    They were the first Europeans to note an outcrop of coal in the Illawarra which would define the region until the present day.     Also, Captain Hamilton reported the presence of strong south-westerly currents during his time on Preservation Island suggesting there was a large body of water separating Van Diemen’s Land and the Australian mainland.   The existence of the strait would later be confirmed by Matthew Flinders and George Bass and named after the latter.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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