Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Australia is home to over eight thousand shipwrecks around its coastline. This staggering number asserts the important role ships have played in bringing people, goods and services to our shores especially when European settlement began in 1788.
One of the greatest maritime disasters that Australia had to face was the wrecking of the Dunbar off The Gap near Sydney Heads in 1857. Unlike some wrecks around the country that are well away from settled areas, The Dunbar floundered on Sydney’s doorstep as it tried to enter the harbour during a very severe storm. Of the 123 passengers and crew, only one person, able seaman James Johnson, survived what was, at the time, the greatest maritime disaster newly formed city of Sydney had known.
The Dunbar was regarded as one of the best sailing ships of its day. When it tried to make its ill-fated entry into Sydney Harbour, it had completed an 81-day voyage from Plymouth without any problems or mishaps. Its demise so near the end of its journey heightened the despair that arose as word of the wreck at the foot of The Gap near South Sydney Heads spread through the surrounding countryside.
Larry Writer’s exploration of the events leading up to the Dunbar’s departure from Plymouth and the aftermath of the disaster of the 20th August 1857 is very detailed and extensive. While he cannot consult any testimonies of that fateful night except those of James Johnson, he does give the reader a good understanding of the importance of the maritime trade to both the people and businesses of the Australian colonies and Great Britain. Good ships such as the Dunbar were essential if the wheels of commerce and family connection were to keep functioning. The loss of even one ship was felt by all.
Writer also turns his attention to the reaction of the residents of Sydney, many of whom had lost loved ones when the Dunbar was wrecked. Mourning turned to anger which then moved to devising ways in which ships could enter Sydney Harbour along a route that would safely take them through the Heads into calmer waters. The result was significant changes to navigation and maritime safety as well as the building of a better lighthouse that overlooks The Heads to the present time.
I am not much of a sailor, but Writer’s clear account and detailed information gave me a better historical understanding of both the maritime world at that time and the enactment of the principle that a major disaster leads to better procedures and principles to make sure that future voyages would be as safe as possible for crews, passengers and the cargo that the ships carried on the long voyage from Great Britain and other parts of the world. The loss of the Dunbar was tragic but those who perished in the wreck did not die in vain once the new lighthouse and other safety measures were built and put in place.
Larry Writer is one of Australia’s most experienced journalists and writers. He is fascinated by Sydney and its history. His 2002 book Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs was a perennial best seller at Pan Macmillan and became the basis for an Underbelly TV series.
by Larry Writer
Allen & Unwin