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The Sydney Cove

Historical Overview

Following the establishment of the penal colony at Port Jackson in January 1788, numerous difficulties were encountered by the colonial administration. In particular, it took some time to adapt European farming techniques to Australian conditions, resulting in the colony's reliance upon external supplies of food until the mid 1790s.

Convict couple

A convict couple at
Port Jackson, part of
the new colony's
consumer society
(Mitchell Library)

In 1790 the Governor of New South Wales was given official permission to obtain supplies direct from India. The initial ventures involved British merchants residing in India supplying firm orders from the colonial authorities and provided the impetus for the first speculative cargo which was dispatched to the colony in late 1792 by the Bombay merchant William Bampton.

The activities of the private traders who operated between India and Port Jackson formed a part of what is referred to as the "country trade", this incorporated all port to port trade which occurred in the seas to the east of the Cape of Good Hope. These private traders came to be known as agency houses and often acted as a means for East India Company officials to invest and pursue trade on their own behalf.

The agency house of Campbell and Clark was established in Calcutta during 1790 and was responsible for sending the Sydney Cove on its speculative voyage. The circumstances surrounding Campbell & Clark's decision to enter the speculative Port Jackson trade are unknown, however it may have been brought about by their dealings with Captain James Storey of the Sovereign after his return from Port Jackson in 1796.

Campbell & Clark acquired the Begum Shaw, a three masted ship formerly part of the Calcutta rice fleet. It was renamed the Sydney Cove in honour of the intended destination. The master of the Begum Shaw, Gavin "Guy" Hamilton retained command of the renamed ship. In recognition of the difficult nature of the proposed voyage through the cold southern oceans, the number of crew was considerably higher than normal and warm clothing and blankets were also issued.

Historical research has shown the Sydney Cove to have been loaded with a speculative cargo of some 7000 gallons (31,500 litres) of spirits contained in an assortment of timber casks and bottles. In addition the cargo contained quantities of tea, rice, sugar, salted meat, leatherware, tar, vinegar, candles, textiles and porcelain. A quantity of livestock was also housed on the vessel's single lower deck, possibly in purpose built stalls.