The Sydney Cove left Calcutta, India destined for the British Colony of Port Jackson, New South Wales on 10 November 1796.
The merchant ship was loaded with Indian, Chinese and European goods set for sale after what was a journey of speculation: the crew would steer the vessel on a largely unexplored route across the Great Southern Ocean.
Wild seas and gale force winds sent the Sydney Cove entirely off course to the Furneaux Group; a collection of islands off Tasmania’s north-east coast and some 1000 kilometres from the vessel’s destination.
In February 1797, the Sydney Cove wrecked off what would become known as Preservation Island, and a tale of survival began.
What crew was left after the wreck established camp on the tiny island and soon a party of 17 left in a long boat to find help.
The group had intended to sail the boat to Port Jackson but high seas forced them to land early and trek through hostile terrain.
Four months later, three of the party arrived at its destination. The rest had succumbed to starvation and the elements.
A rescue party of two vessels was dispatched and on 10 June 1797 the remaining crew and what cargo had been salvaged from the Sydney Cove, were collected.
Adding further to a shocking tale of misadventure, one of the vessels, The Eliza, was lost at sea.
Although noted on a map by explorer George Bass in 1804, the Sydney Cove lay largely undisturbed in the icy waters of Bass Strait until 1977 when a team of dive enthusiasts examined the wreck. In 1978, in collaboration with the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service, QVMAG took possession of an anchor and canon raised from the site.
Over the next 16 years, cumulating in an excavation program over the summers of 1991-1994, QVMAG became the repository of all excavated material, including Chinese ceramics, Indian pottery, bottles, parts of the ship such as the rudder and rigging, leather hides and footwear, and foodstuff items such as animal bones, peppercorns and tobacco.
Within the materials recovered from the Sydney Cove are what is believed to be some of the world’s oldest beer, wine and spirits recovered from a shipwreck. 37 intact glass bottles, of which 22 were still sealed with contents, were brought up from the excavation site. In 1993, the contents of some was removed and samples sent to the Australian Wine Research Institute in South Australia for analysis to determine their identity and condition. Rudimentary analysis was completed and the Institute’s report identified the samples as red wine and beer.
Years later in a collaborative effort