Students examine the impact of a prolonged food shortage in the early colony. 

Student activities

Task no. 1


In those first few years of the fledgling colony, there just wasn’t enough of a regular supply of food to feed the large number of colonists who were now living there. In October 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip even sent his ship HMS Sirius to Cape Town to gather more food supplies. It returned seven months later with only enough food to last only four months! Food, and not getting enough of it, became a focus of daily life for everyone in the settlement. Initially when food was plentiful the convicts were healthier and stronger than they would have been in England but there was not a consistent supply of healthy food. The reduced food rations that everyone was given, were, by today’s standards, low quality salted food, and didn’t provide what we would recognise as the daily nutritional requirements. A diet limited in fresh vegetables and fruit only compounded this problem and had devastating consequences. Historians refer to the first five years of the colony as ‘the hungry years’. During these five years free settlers arrived and they too were troubled by the irregular food supplies. Everyone was affected. 

Look at the painting, below, of farms at Rose Hill in about 1791. You can see evidence of farming but it was not always successful. Even when food was produced it was not in the quantities needed or was stolen. Concerted effort was put into growing food and often without much reward. 

View at Rose Hill Port Jackson
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Read how Judge David Collins in 1798 summed up this early time: 

Years of famine, toil, and difficulty. 

Read how desperate Captain Watkin Tench is in April 1790:  

All our labour and attention were turned on one subject – the procuring of food…The insufficiency of our ration soon diminished our execution of labour. Both soldiers and convicts pleaded such loss of strength, as to find themselves unable to perform their accustomed tasks… Famine…was approaching with gigantic strides, and gloom and dejection overspread every countenance. 

Read Captain Watkin Tench’s comments in April 1791:  

I was passing the provision-store, when a man, with a wild haggard countenance, who had just received his daily pittance to carry home, came out. His faltering gait, and eager devouring eye, led me to watch him; and he had not proceeded ten steps before he fell. I ordered him to be carried to the hospital, where, when he arrived, he was found dead. On opening the body, the cause of death was pronounced to be inanition. 

Read Judge David Collins’ extract from his journal in December 1788: 

[A convict] died through want of nourishment, and through weakness occasioned by the heat of the sun. 

Define the meaning of the word famine

Research these terms related to illness – inanition, and want of nourishment.   

Read how Surgeon John White, who ran the hospital, was worried about the diseases suffered by the convicts and soldiers who would most likely remain sick: 

…from the food (salt provisions) on which they are from necessity obliged to live.  

That is a difficult situation to be in – needing to eat but knowing the only food available was making you sick! Not only was the lack of food an issue but a regular supply of fresh water dried up in the drought of 1791. 

Read Chaplain Richard Johnson’s comments in a letter he wrote in March 1791: 

Water began to grow very scarce & very bad - Many people have been ill on this account. 

Draw the before and after pictures of a First Fleet convict. On the left draw a healthy convict with clean clothes on arrival in 1788 and on the right draw a convict a few years later who is very hungry, thirsty and sick and whose clothes are dirty, deteriorating and loose on their body.