From the time the first 759 convicts of the First Fleet set foot on the ships that would take them half way around the world, they were fed on rations from ‘the store’. On their voyage to the penal colony of NSW and once ashore in Sydney Cove, they were given the standard Naval Board rations which included 3.6 kg of flour or ships biscuit, 3.2 kg of salted beef (or around half that quantity of salted pork),’three pints of dried pease’ and 170 g of salted butter per week.

Maize, one of the staples in the early colony of NSW, as depicted by Emily Anne Manning in her sketchbook with scenes in Europe and New South Wales, 1836-39 (SLNSW PXB 524)

This was a generous diet compared to what they would eat (or not eat) in later years, and was notable for the inclusion of butter and dried peas!

On the journey between England and Australia, Governor Arthur Phillip stopped at Rio in South America and at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to pick up fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables. This ensured that passengers, both convict and free settlers, didn’t succumb to scurvy or other illnesses caused by vitamin deficiencies.

But food was not the only means of keeping the First Fleet convicts alive. Before embarkation, they were screened for infectious disease and their general health was also checked, to ensure they were both fit enough to survive the six month journey to Australia and were a viable labour force on arrival to the new penal colony of NSW.

Food shortages began as soon as the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. There were only limited supplies bought to Australia as it was hoped that the colony would be self-sufficient within three years. To this end, animals (including cows, pigs, ducks and rabbits), plants and seeds for growing crops of fruit, vegetables and grains were part of the cargo. But the cows ran away, the rabbits died and the seed spoiled and was planted in high summer, and didn’t take. Not a good start!

Supplies had to be rationed to make sure that there was enough food to go around. The ‘dietary scale’ had to be reduced on a frequent basis. In November 1789, the rations for men were cut by one third. By April the following year, the convicts were on ‘short rations’ of 1.1 kg of flour, 907 g of salt pork and 2 pounds of rice per person, weekly. Convicts experienced these privations of limited rations despite the abundant food growing locally, such as warrigal greens, native cherries, seafood and kangaroo.

This situation wasn’t helped with the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790.  Of the over 1000 convicts that boarded the ships in England, more than 250 had died en-route. Around half of those who survived the journey were extremely unwell on arrival, and became a drain on the already stretched resources of the colony – which was about to head into drought!

Despite the ‘hungry years’ of 1788-1792, the colony survived. And things have certainly changed over the past 200 years – no rations for us now, not since the Second World War. Indeed, we have an abundance of fresh produce thanks to irrigation and the development of agricultural and farming practices.  And happily, most of us are happy to eat ‘bush tucker’ too… Kangaroo and native spinach anyone?