On 15 May 1797 a fishing boat passing Wattamolla, in what is now Sydney’s Royal National Park, spotted three men on the beach. Rescued and returned to Sydney, the trio – tea merchant and supercargo William Clarke, sailor John Bennet, and Clarke’s lascar manservant, Srinivas – told an extraordinary story. After their ship, the Sydney Cove, was wrecked on Preservation Island in Bass Strait, they, along with fourteen other men, had set off in a longboat, hoping to fetch help for the other survivors. But when the longboat was also wrecked off the Ninety Mile Beach along Victoria, the survivors chose to do the only thing left open to them: follow the coast north on foot until they found help.
Jock Serong’s fourth novel, Preservation, takes this largely forgotten footnote to colonial history and uses it as the basis for a compelling study of European rapacity and blindness. Opening with the return of the three survivors to Sydney, the novel reimagines not just the trek north, but also the events leading up to the wreck and the impact the survivors had on the colony in which eventually they find themselves.