Three Sheets to the Wind by Adam Courtenay

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Delving into Adam Courtenay’s latest book, which explores aspects of the life in the fledgling colony at Sydney Cove, poses a fascinating question. How did a society that at almost all levels was “three sheets to the wind” form the foundation to the thriving nation of today, which seriously takes part in international affairs?

 The research, background and salient details contained in the book partly answers the question. It also engenders a sense of wonder that from these rough beginnings sprung the very different Australia of today.

 In 1796, it all began in India, where a Scottish mercantile company was motivated to snare huge profits from the trade in liquor; rum being the most desired commodity in the early convict settlement. Campbell and Clark engaged the ‘Sydney Cove’, captained by Guy Hamilton and laden with gallons of rum. The perilous route left Calcutta, went down the Indian Ocean, crossed the Southern Ocean and up the roughly chartered east coast of Terra Australis. Great skill, energy, and courage did not prevent deaths and the suffering of’ the men as the extremes of weather plagued the voyage. A hurricane struck in the Southern Ocean and the ship hurtled onto rocks near Preservation Island.

 Even more remarkable feats of endurance now commenced. In that remote place, battered constantly by freezing wind and rain, Captain Hamilton decided to stay with the valuable cargo and a handful of men and animals. Clark and Thompson, with fifteen others, set off in the damaged longboat. It foundered 600 miles from Sydney and the seventeen set off to walk along the coast. They had some damp rice to eat and little else.

 Three of the seventeen men made it to the colony, thanks mainly to the kindness and generous help of Indigenous people. At least six tribes treated them well. Only one was aggressive, throwing spears and causing injury.

 Once they reached Sydney, two ships were put to sea to rescue Hamilton and his remaining men, and of course, the rum!

 Rum, to the early settlers, was their currency so it was desperately sought by almost everyone from the convicts to officers in the infamous Rum Corps. This ‘treasure’, once in the colony and in the hands of the Corps, drew markups of between 300% -800%.

Rum was not only of financial value but was necessary, because on long journeys it did not spoil. Water would become bad and reek, beer would sour.

 For many too, it provided solace, for both boredom and homesickness.

 Courtenay’s book is a fine example of how one fact – a company delivering a commodity – can develop into a riveting tale where men are thrown together in terrible circumstances and dramas ensue.

 Governor Hunter’s conflict with MacArthur is an undercurrent to the major event in the narrative, the long haul from Calcutta to Sydney, with unheard of privations and demands on strength and resourcefulness.

It is as honest as his meticulous research can offer. He reveals that whereas Hunter reported to the Home Secretary ‘savage encounters’ with the ‘natives’. This untruth was exposed in Clark’s diary which shows that their experiences were mainly friendly with few exceptions.

 We learn why the motley crew valued rum so highly and risked so much. In addition, Adam Courtenay’s vivid history makes those times remarkable and interesting to a wide audience. Impossible not to marvel that, from these chaotic beginnings grew the sophisticated Sydney of the present, a beautiful city of which we can be proud.

 Three Sheets to the Wind


by Adam Courtenay

ABC Books

ISBN 978 073334 186 1

$26.25; 296pp

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