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The Sydney Cove

The Ship

The Sydney Cove was identified as the former Begum Shaw as a result of documentary research, however it is the archaeological investigation which has affirmed that it was in fact an Indian built ship and most likely from a Calcutta yard. The attribution of the ship to the Calcutta industry is based upon its relatively lightweight construction and shallow draught which were considered markers of vessels built for the country trade out of Calcutta.


Blocks and pulley sheaves
recovered from the Sydney Cove

Testing of numerous timber samples have shown the main timbers of the Sydney Cove to be teak, sissoo and Indian rosewood, all of which were obtainable in the Bay of Bengal area. The exception to this is some African hardwood utilised in the bow area and the lignum vitae from America used for the pulley sheaves in the vessel's running rigging.

Whilst much of the rigging would have been salvaged, substantial amounts of cordage have been located on the site. The Sydney Cove appears to have been rigged almost totally with Indian made coir rope as opposed to European cordage which was three times the cost. Coir rope was manufactured from the short outer fibres from coconut husks which were soaked, beaten and twisted into long lengths of yarn.

Cordage recovered from the Sydney Cove

Cordage recovered from the Sydney Cove

Archaeological evidence also corroborates documentary sources which state the Sydney Cove was rigged as a three masted ship for its voyage to Port Jackson. The in-situ mainmast step was uncovered in 1978, followed by the unattached mizzen mast step in the stern area during the 1980 excavation. The foremast step has not been located as it would have been destroyed when the bow timbers were separated from the keel assembly.

Adding to the Sydney Cove's woes was the way in which the hull was constructed. The main hull frames were relatively narrow and joined above the keel with deeply cut rebates to allow for the keel timbers. In addition, they were spaced further apart than would have been the case on European vessel of similar specification. It was most likely the combination of relatively lightweight hull specification, downward force from the rig and sea conditions which caused the hull to loses its integrity during the voyage.

Sectional view of a Sydney Cove model,
illustrating construction of the
frames and keel assembly

The ship's pump was first excavated in 1984 after which it was stabilised and left in-situ. The pump body measures 6.5 m in length with a girth which tapers from 112 to 87 cm. The pump is of particular interest as it departs from the normal construction practice of being bored from a whole tree trunk. Instead it appears to be made from two half trunks joined longitudinally, reinforced and secured along its length by 9 wrought iron bands.

The Sydney Cove was initially constructed with a thin outer layer of sacrificial planking over the main hull planking. This layer, combined with the application of lime and resinous compounds was designed to protect the structure from marine borers. Toward the end of its working life, the vessel had copper sheathing applied below the waterline in the fight against marine organisms. However, the Sydney Cove had been built using iron fastenings which may have been significantly weakened by a galvanic reaction resulting from the presence of copper and iron in a saline environment. This may have contributed to the demise of the ship.

The presence of privateers and pirates throughout the northern Indian Ocean required that country ships be adequately armed. Four iron cannons have been located near the bow of the Sydney Cove, of which two have been recovered. One gun was found to have been cast in France in 1782. In addition, examples of ammunition and cartridge holders for the vessel's complement of small arms have been recovered.

The Sydney Cove carried at least 3 anchors, of which 2 have been recovered whilst the third remains on the site. The anchors were imported from Europe and are identified as long shank "Admiralty" type which were in common usage on both naval and merchant ships.

Whilst attack by marine borers was problematic to the operators of the Sydney Cove during its working life, they also pose a significant problem to the preservation and conservation of historic shipwrecks. This is one of the reasons for the re-covering and periodic inspection of the wrecksite since its excavation. Damage caused by Teredo nervalis infestation can be seen in the uppermost timber in this photograph of the keel assembly.