On 20 May 1814 Sydney came under siege for the first time in its short history. Not from an external enemy but from one of its own, a burning convict ship moored right in the harbour.
Until the 1840s, convict ships disgorging their human cargo were a familiar sight in Sydney. Up till 1814 approximately 16,000 convicts had come ashore in Sydney (over 82,000 would arrive in Sydney by the 1840s). Most ships came and went with little incident. Convicts were sick, some died, but mostly the ships were just another day in colonial Sydney.
The Three Bees arrived in early May with her travelling companion, the convict ship Catherine. Both had left England in late 1813 at the height of the Napoleonic War. They were escorted down the coast of Africa by two armed frigates, which was fortunate as they came across teh French war ship Cere’s, captained by Baron Bouganville (Bouganville had already visited Sydney and would do so again in the 1820s). A brief battle ensued, and the Cere’s was captured. The convict ships continued on, their guns now loaded in case of any further trouble.
In Sydney, the Three Beesunloaded 210 male convicts, including 50 sick with scurvy. On the 20th, the ship was preparing to leave when a fire was discovered in the forward hold. The reasons were never discovered, but it is thought a candle wick dropped and smouldered before catching fire. Either way, by the time it was noticed the ships hold was well alight.
Fire on a ship is bad enough, but whenthe ship has 14 loaded guns and is thought to have 130 cases of gunpowder its terrifying. As word spread, so did panic. Sydney was a town with many timber buildings crowded around the harbour foreshore and Circular Quay area. If this ship blew, she could take half the town with her. People began to evacuate the town, including Governor Macquarie.
With a breeze blowing to the south, it was decided to cut the ship loose from its moorings and let her drift to the middle of the harbour. Anchored close to the Government Wharf, near the current MCA, she was cut adrift and slowly moved out into the middle of the channel. As the Sydney Gazette told its readers the next day, ‘as she swung to and fro with the tide, menaced each point of the Cove with her broadside in turn‘.
The Gazette breathless went on ‘This was a tremendous crisis, a crisis of extreme agitation to the inhabitants of the town, and to those more especially whose houses and other property were from the approximation of the danger the more exposed-A ship of nearly 500 tons burthern, cast loose, it may almost be said in the middle of town, unmanageable, and pouring forth columns of smoke and fire, threatening desolation all around her, with her guns all loaded, first pointed on one object and then another’.
At approximately 6.30pm, two hours after being cut adrift, the fire finally reached the first gun, which exploded and fired into town. In the next hour fourteen guns went off randomly, firing shot into the streets around the harbour. Miraculously no one was injured. The main damage done was to the writing desk of Captain Piper of the Naval Office, when a cannon ball came through his window and smashed the desk, ironically the same desk he had signed the forms for the ships imminent departure.
The Three Bees eventually hit rocks at Bennelong Point where the Opera House is now. The fire reached the remaining powder and the whole thing exploded, burnt to the waterline and the next morning sank.
And so it remains, on the harbour floor somewhere under the Opera House.
The whole event was recreated in a spectacular light show as part of the Vivid festival in Sydney in June 2009, except this time the Three Bees sank and resurfaced nine times in the name of art.