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Waters without equal

8 January 2010 1,192 views No Comment

Review of Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: A History, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009, pp 359, $49.95

In 1836 when the naturalist Charles Darwin arrived in New South Wales, Sydney harbour was already a remarkably busy place and Sydney town, with a population of almost 20,000, a hub of activity.

Darwin’s ship the Beagle was but one of 570 vessels that arrived that year in Port Jackson. Only 16 of these were convict ships, with the rest comprising immigrant vessels, whalers, traders and local coasters carrying produce. As Ian Hoskins points out in this masterly, multi-layered history, the Sydney newspapers ‘ran whole pages dedicated to shipping news; arrivals and departures to and from Newcastle, Norfolk Island, Launceston, Hobart, Liverpool and London. There were reports of wrecks, boats for sale, cargo unloaded.’

Although relatively few Sydneysiders then lived on the foreshores, most depended in some significant way upon the port. Sixteen thousand of these men and women were free, and there was increasing agitation to stop entirely the transportation of convicts. The granting of free land had been abolished in 1831 and land sales were helping raise monies to assist free immigration to a colony where commercial and residential development was even appearing on Sydney’s north shore.  In 1836 Darwin was able to see steamers and paddle wheelers that burnt local coal on their way to and from the Hunter River. Moreover, by this time whaling (which earned more than wool) comprised as much as 29 per cent of the colony’s total export income.

It is fascinating to read what influential others thought of Sydney and its harbour. In 1873, in his book Australia and New Zealand, the English novelist and travel writer Anthony Trollope powerfully evoked the loveliness of the place: ‘I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney harbour. I have seen nothing equal to it in the way of land-locked sea scenery.’

As Hoskins explains, where Trollope despaired, the local writer Francis Myers persevered. In 1886 he described the waterway at night and at dawn in some of the best prose ever written about the harbour: ‘The water is still then, and all the hills are vested in a luminous grey, actually melting, fancy might say, in the crucible of dawn, phantom shapes they seem wrapped in the shrouds of mist.’

Two years later, in his memoir Mirror of the Sea: Memories and Impressions, the mariner and novelist Joseph Conrad, who had sailed down from Bangkok in a ship full of teak, recalled several visits to Sydney’s quay.  He described it thus: ‘From the heart of the fair city, down the vista of important streets, could be seen the wool-clippers lying at Circular Quay. No longer part of a prison-house, the dock he wrote, was by then an “integral part of one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun ever shone upon’.

In this sweeping, limpidly written and superbly illustrated history of Sydney harbour, Hoskins explores the fascinating story of one of the world’s most recognized waterways from the time of the local Gameragal, Gadigal and Wangal clans to current, passionate 21st century concerns about the immediate and long-term future of the harbour.

Some unusual facts stand out. In particular, I had not realized how few convicts, troops and civil officials arriving in Australia could swim. This meant that when they fell overboard from boats and other vessels in the harbour, it was often goodnight nurse!

Similarly, although it is well known that the first few fleets brought cattle, sheep, goats and pigs to the infant penal colony of New South Wales, it remains unclear how many cats and domesticated dogs arrived in our formative years. Certainly, most early governors of the penal settlement were appalled by the economy and culture that developed around grog, and especially spirits, which in the absence of sterling soon became a common currency. For example when, during the governorship of John Hunter, a much desired load of brandy from the Cape of Good Hope arrived, it was almost immediately exchanged for over six times its original value.

It us useful to be reminded that in 1901, the year of Australia’s federation into a single nation, Sydney was in the grip of bubonic plague which had arrived in the docks just 12 months before our first governor-general, Lord Hopetoun, had stepped ashore. Spread by rats in the waterfront, from ships probably originating in Hong Kong, the contagion that flourished in the warm, wet Sydney autumn soon followed the transport routes that radiated out from the port.  Almost certainly ferries took the plague across the water to North Sydney and Manly, while coastal steamers transported the disease as far north as Brisbane.

In Sydney Harbour, Ian Hoskins has produced a fine history, an excellent read, and a testament to all the human beings who still inhabit it and fight for its preservation. It is a tribute to Hoskins’ narrative grasp that he manages to balance contemporary ecological and environmental concerns with an emphasis on the crucial role of a number of key Aboriginal mediators. In the colony’s very early days, Bennelong, a Wangal man, was the most important conduit between the European newcomers and the harbour clans who, as a result of endemic disease, were already ‘growing scarce.’

Indeed Governor Arthur Phillip, with whom he established a close relationship, built Bennelong a house at Sydney Cove, at a place the British colonists had originally called Cattle Point but soon renamed Bennelongs Point.  Returning to New South Wales after having been feted in Great Britain, Bennelong found that the only way he could cope with the strain of straddling two cultures was to increasingly use alcohol as an emotional and psychological anesthetic.

Ross Fitzgerald has written 32 books, including his memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, which will be launched by the Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson on 2 February. The Spectator Australia 9 January 2010.