1790 Food crisis in Port Jackson

HMS Supply

In 1790, the colonists at Port Jackson faced their harshest conditions. Early attempts at agriculture had produced little. While hunting and fishing did supplement meagre supplies, starvation was a real possibility. The 1790 food crisis was rations reduced by two thirds, the weekly allowance per person being 2 lb (1 kilogram) of pork, 2.5 lb (1.2 kilograms) of flour and 2 lb (1 kilogram) of rice.

In March some provisions arrived on HMS Supply but, in the same month, the colony’s second supply ship, the Sirius, was wrecked while landing convicts on Norfolk Island. Although all of the ship’s company were saved, the supplies the Sirius carried were lost. Lieutenant Ralph Clark wrote of the disaster, “Gracious God what will become of us all, the whole of our provisions in the ship, now a wreck before us. I hope in God that we will be able to save some if not all but why do I flatter myself with such hopes – there is at present no prospect of it except that of starving”.

The arrival of the Second Fleet in Sydney in June made the situation worse. Known as the Death Fleet, these convict ships were owned by private contractor. Those convicts who hadn’t died on board as a result of starvation and ill-treatment arrived in very poor health and were a drain on resources, worsening the 1790 food crisis.

On 12 May 1790, the following assessment was made of food stores:

Pork 23,851lb will last until 26 August at current rates of consumption.
Beef 1,280lb will last until 26 August at current rates of consumption
Rice 27,455lb will last until 13 September at current rates of consumption
Pease 17 bushels will last until 13 September at current rates of consumption
Flour 56,884lb will last until 19 December at current rates of consumption
Biscuit 1,924lb will last until 19 December at current rates of consumption

From 1791, the more regular arrival of boats alleviated the acute shortage of food, while farming gradually improved thanks to the efforts of emancipated convicts, former soldiers and, eventually, free settlers.

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