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The Food They Tried to Grow

Students identify the types of food grown by the colonists and the associated challenges and successes. 

Student activities

Task no. 1

The Food They Tried to Grow

Growing food to supplement the rations and sustain the colony was of paramount importance to the survival of the colony. Governor Phillip calculated that the supply of food for rationing that he had hoped would last two years was in fact only going to last 49 weeks. The First Fleet's barley and wheat supplies had deteriorated due to excessive heat and weevils on the voyage to New South Wales. They desperately needed to grow some food but their clearing of the bushland, pollution of the waterways and destruction of ancient ecosystems continued at an alarming pace. For the Aboriginal people who were struggling to survive on the fringes of the colony it must have been heartbreaking to witness such pointless and avoidable destruction and hunger. We continue to deal with the consequences of introduced plants and animals to this day. 

Watch this animation about the food supply for the colonists in the early colony. 

An animation of food rations for convicts and free settlers on the First Fleet

Look at the map, below. Find evidence of farming. This map is not accurate but does give us an idea of the camp set-up.  

Sketch & description of the settlement at Sydney Cove Port Jackson in the County of Cumberland taken by a transported convict on the 16th of April, 1788, which was not quite 3 months after Commodore Phillips's landing there [cartographic material] / F. F.,
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The first farm was established at the place we know as Wahganmuggalee/Farm Cove that is now in the Botanic Gardens. The colonists had mixed results growing grain, although the Governor’s garden nearby successfully produced some vegetables. The plan had been for the colony to be almost self-sufficient within two years, but farming proved to be difficult and most convicts were from cities and did not have farming skills. Those that did were using farming practices from England that did not necessarily translate well to New South Wales’ climate and geography.  

Read Surgeon George Worgan’s letter on 12 June 1788 about the disappointing results of their efforts:  

…besides the common culinary Plants, Indigo, Coffee, Ginger, Castor Nut, Oranges, Lemons, & Limes, Firs & Oaks, have vegitated from Seed, but whether from any unfriendly, deleterious Quality of the Soil or the Season, nothing seems to flourish vigorously long, but they shoot up suddenly after being put in the Ground, look green & luxuriant for a little Time, blossom early, fructify slowly & weakly, and ripen before they come to their proper Size.  

  George planted his own vegetable patch.  

I put Peas, and broad Beans in, soon after I arrived…. and neither of the Plants are above a Foot high… however my Soil is rather too sandy. If there are any Plants that flourish better than others, it is thought, that these are Yam, Pompkin;--and ye Turnips are very sweet, but small. I opened one of my Potatoe Beds, & found 6 or 7 at each Root.  

Read Governor King’s report from April 1789 revealing how much more productive food crops were on Norfolk Island: 

By April of '89, … food crops were very promising - groves of Rio banana trees, orange trees, sugar cane, rice, wheat and barley, pumpkins, potatoes, turnips, artichokes, lettuce, onions, leeks, celery and parsley. 

Read what Reverend Richard Johnson, who was renowned as the best gardener in the colony, was growing in his garden in Sydney in 1790: 

Oranges, strawberries, cucumbers, peas and grapes… Some Guavas… Last Year I cut I suppose not less than a thousand Cucumbers. 

Read about the produce that Captain Watkin Tench describes growing in the colony a few years later in 1792: 

Vines of every sort seem to flourish: melons, cucumbers, and pumpkins, run with unbounded luxuriancy; and I am convinced that the grapes of New South Wales will, in a few years, equal those of any other country. Other fruits…oranges, lemons, and figs… apples. 

Identify, from the quotes above, some of the food that was grown in the early colony. Write each word down and sort them into five groups below, according to the part of the plant that is eaten. [Answers are in Additional Information.] Research any food you are not sure about. 

  • Fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Seeds/grains 
  • Grass  
  • Using the whole plant!  

It was a good idea to grow your own fruit and vegetables if you could. Convicts in 1788 were given the whole of Saturday off to tend their gardens in order to grow their own food. By 1790 as the food shortage grew worse, convicts were given Wednesday afternoons off as well. Even when vegetables and fruits were successfully grown in the colony there was just not enough for everyone. 

Look at these images showing  some cottage backyards in Sydney in in 1794 and farms at Rose Hill (Parramatta) in 1791.  

Rows of houses rising up a hill, away from a shoreline

Image 1: Detail from View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling

Farmhouses, trees and paddocks surrounding a bend in a river, that is crossed by a low bridge in the centre of the image

Image 2: Detail from View at Rose Hill Port Jackson

Answer these questions:  

  • What evidence can you find of food being grown? 
  • What did the First Fleet need to bring with them to grow food? You might like to research what farming tools the First Fleet brought from England. [See Activity 2 - Off to Work - of the Work to Be Done Learning Activity.]
  • What did they need to do to the natural environment to establish farms? 
  • What are some of the challenges they may have faced? 

Within the colony the food supply fluctuated, rations were diminishing, and the ability to grow food was dependent on the weather (storms, floods and droughts), soil conditions and gardening ability.  

Read a comment from Judge David Collins in March 1789 that explains another challenge in growing food: 

The gardens and houses of individuals… were overrun with rats. 

Unlike today with a plentiful and constant supply of fruit and vegetables, the colonists could only have fruit when it was in season. For example, oranges were picked when they were ripe in winter so there were no oranges at other times of the year. There were no refrigerators or ice to help keep things fresh either. 

Research what foods could only be grown in certain seasons. Write up a chart listing food availability by season. 

Grow some edible plants from seeds – snow peas work well. Try experimenting by placing each pot under different conditions to simulate the difficult environmental conditions that the colonists faced in Sydney. Place one pot in the sun, one in the shade, one swamped with water, one watered with saltwater, one with lots of sand in the soil, etc. Record your results. 

For information about a large cabbage grown by the Governor, see Celebrations as part of the Idle Hours learning activity.