Reviewed by Rod McLary
The Coves – referring to Sydney Coves or Sydney Ducks – is set in San Francisco in 1849 during the gold rush. ‘Sydney Coves’ is slang for the Australian emancipated and escaped convicts who flocked to California during its gold rush to make their fortunes. They brought with them their criminality and propensity for violence. According to contemporary reports, the ‘Sydney Coves’ opened ‘lodging houses, dance-halls, groggeries and taverns’ – all described as ‘hives of dronish criminals, shabby little dens with rough hangdog fellows’. It is reported that between 1849 and 1855, San Francisco was burnt to the ground five times – each time with the exception of Sydney-Town the area in which the Sydney Coves lived. The reader can draw her/his own conclusion from that.
The Sydney Coves were perhaps the first ‘boat people’ and were processed accordingly when they arrived in California. They were also bitterly resented by the local people – the nativists.
Terry Smyth in his book Australian Desperadoes [Penguin Random House 2017] states:
The Sydney Coves, along with the street gangs of New York, were among the earliest organised crime gangs in the United States, and were arguably more successful because unlike the ethnic New York gangs, which fought each other over neighbourhood territories, the Coves terrorised an entire city.
Into this milieu comes the protagonist of the novel Samuel Bellamy. Sam is twelve years old and has bought his passage from Sydney to San Francisco with a stolen silver watch. Sam is not above breaking the law but his motive in this case was a pure one. He is trying to locate his mother whom he has followed from Perth and who he believes has now sailed to California. Sam is just able to recall a time when he and his brothers lived with his parents in Western Australia. Sadly, Sam’s father was savagely killed by the Aborigines and his mother – deeply affected by husband’s death – took to selling herself to the local soldiers for food. She was flogged and sent to Van Diemen’s Land and was not seen again by Sam and his brothers. One brother died of food poisoning and the other wandered into the bush and was never seen again.
After time in a boys’ home, Sam managed to find his way to Sydney to board a ship bound for California. Sam is certain he will find his mother in the ‘hives of dronish criminals’ in San Francisco.
The story is essentially Sam’s search for his mother and the adventures he has while doing so. However, the reader should not expect an Australian Huck Finn. This story is very different.
Sam is an intelligent and appealing young lad – bright enough to answer a quote from King Lear with one from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. But this intelligence doesn’t do him much good in a place where quick wits and quicker fists and knives is the only way to survive. However, by way of his cleverness, he manages to gain a protector and is ‘employed’ to run messages – a role which provides him with a degree of protection from harm.
His message-running brings him contact with an older Chinese man who – at Sam’s first glance – appears to have a young girl imprisoned. Sam attempts to communicate with her – she is called Ai – but is warned off by the man. However, he takes whatever opportunity he can to speak with her and gradually a friendship develops as the man increasingly trusts Sam and consequently turns a blind eye to the friendship. Sam discovers that there are two beds in the hut so he is reassured and comforted that there is nothing untoward happening between Ai and her uncle. Because of his life circumstances, Sam has extensive second-hand knowledge of how men can use and abuse women, girls, boys and other men.
This friendship between Sam and Ai – and it cannot be called anything else – provides a little warmth in Sam’s life which up until now has been very much lacking in anything approaching a family life.
It would be giving too much away to describe the circumstances surrounding Sam’s discovery of his mother and what follows. Suffice to say, it provides an opportunity for much bloodshed and mayhem.
Overall though, the story of Sam and his search for his mother is subsumed by the telling of the history of the Sydney Coves in San Francisco. Unfortunately, it is not until towards the end of the novel that the story of Sam takes centre stage again and the story gains momentum.
Whish-Wilson states in his Author’s note that the novel is based on fact and many of the incidents described in the book actually happened . Some names have been changed and time frames conflated in the interests of dramatic tension.
As a snapshot of a rather sordid chapter in Australian history – not taught in our schools – there is considerable merit in the telling of this story. Fortunately, the chapter was not a long one as, in 1851, gold was discovered in Ballarat and many of the Sydney Coves returned to Australia – including Sam and Ai and her uncle.
David Whish-Wilson is the author of three crime novels. His non-fiction book Perth was shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award. He lives in Fremantle and coordinates the creative writing program at Curtin University.
by David Whish-Wilson
ISBN 978 1 925591 27 9