Sydney Harbour was a bustling port city, full of British and international ships laden with cargos. After the First Opium War forced China to trade ports in 1842, Sydney became an important port in triangular voyages from Europe or America to Australia, then onto China, before returning home.
The onset of the gold rush in 1849 swept away the lingering effects of the depression. In the following decade gold exports continued to eclipse wool, and Sydney’s population grew from 45,000 in 1851 to more than 60,000 in 1861.
Enticed by the promise of riches, many crewmen deserted at Sydney to seek their fortunes on the goldfields. Others settled in foreshore suburbs like the Rocks and Darling Harbour, dividing their time between seafaring and working on harbour crafts or on the wharves.
In Cockatoo Island’s colonial prisoners’ registers, there are sixteen prisoners listed as seamen, sailors, ship’s cooks, shipwrights and sailmakers. Some settled in Sydney, giving up former maritime trades, making it hard to estimate their numbers with accuracy.
New Yorker Edward Power worked on board American whaler Champion making casks to store valuable whale oil. Between 1820 and 1855, Sydney whalers made 558 deep sea voyages from Port Jackson. Like many other crew members, it seems Power left service to try his luck on the goldfields. He was convicted at Bathurst Circuit Court on 24 September 1858 of burglary, and sentenced to 5 years hard labour on Cockatoo Island.
As you might expect these former seamen incarcerated at Cockatoo Island came from all over the world, and many of them were Black or Asian, reflecting the global movement of ships, people and produce which flowed into Sydney Harbour.
Many still-serving sailors were convicted of disobedience or violence towards senior officers. Existing tensions over shipboard hierarchies were exacerbated when in port. The freedoms of shore-leave, often including drinking, only highlighted the strictures of shipboard life, resulting in anger and even violence towards superior officers.
William Washington was ‘a coloured American seaman’ serving on the Moses Wheeler steamer. He was convicted at Sydney’s Central Criminal Court on 7 December 1857 of stabbing the chief mate officer James Whitman, while attempting to dash over the gang-plank to shore while the Moses was hauling away.
In his defence, Washington alleged that he had been ill-treated on the voyage and claimed that the chief mate had sworn at and attacked him first. He was found guilty of wounding with intent and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour on Cockatoo Island, to serve the first year in irons. He was discharged on pass in December 1861.
Khanassee, a 30 year old man from Calcutta, was an Indian lascar on board the Stately. On 24 February 1859, he rowed rowing Captain Wycherley to a steamer near Manly Beach, and stayed ashore with his fellow boatmen to drink. He was beaten with a rope for inoslence when he refused to follow the orders of his direct superior officer (his tindal), Bricca Ali.
Angered and humiliated, Khanassee took out a clasp knife and gestured towards the steamer where the Captain was having his dinner, saying in Hindi:“I am going to strike him with this knife”’. With this gesture, Khanassee was directing his anger at both authority figures onboard: the European Captain and his Indian superior officer.
Ali, fought Khanassee for control of the knife and was stabbed in his thigh. After the drunken frivolities, no one paid attention to the crew’s shouts for help and Ali died.
At his trial at Sydney Supreme Court on 4 April 1849, Khanassee stated in his defence that: ‘he had been drinking and knew nothing of what had occurred’. The jury recommended him to mercy. After serving just over 2 years, Khanassee was released on 22 July 1861, on condition of ‘exiling himself to Calcutta’.
While imprisoned on Cockatoo Island, these convict-sailors continued to use their skills in maritime work. The prisoners built and manned a dry dock for repairing sail- and steam-vessels. The island’s location in Sydney Harbour, brought these former-sailors tantalisingly close to their former lives of seafaring, highlighting their confinement even more forcefully.
 Robert Lee, Linking a Nation: Australia’s transport and communications, 1788-1970 (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 2003) Ch. 2.
 NSW State Archives, Colonial Secretary’s Correspondence Main Series, NRS 905, 4/3467, 62/1280.
 Sue Castrique, Under the Colony’s Eye: Gentlemen and convicts on Cockatoo Island, 1839-1869 (Sydney: Anchor Books, 2014).
Ian Hoskins, Sydney Harbour: A History (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009)
Mark Howard, ‘Sydney’s whaling fleet’, Dictionary of Sydney (2011) https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/sydneys_whaling_fleet
Jerry W. Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)
Aaron Jaffer, Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny, 1760-1860 (Woodbridge, 2015)
New South Wales State Archives & Records’ have shipping lists between 1854-1922 including names of crew members, their position on board and nationality. There are few records relating to crew prior to this period. See their guide to the records here.
The National Maritime Museum’s in Greenwich also has a guide for finding black and asian (lascar) sailors in the Royal Museum Greenwich’s collections here.