1799 Food concerns in the colony

Vice-Admiral John Hunter, c. 1813-15, by William Mineard Bennett State Library of NSW

In 1799, John Hunter, the second Governor of New South Wales, wrote to the Duke of Portland, the English MP responsible for the administration of the New South Wales colony, requesting additional supplies. His letter remarked on food concerns and rejected Portland’s suggestion that meat rations could be met from the local livestock.  Hunter’s letter also countered Portland’s objection to the purchase of sugar.

His letter, on 4 July 1799, read:

Livestock required for breeding. There can be no doubt, my Lord, that when the livestock belonging to individuals and to the Crown is sufficiently numerous to admit of our feeding the people upon it we shall no longer require flesh provision from any other country; but to begin too early to apply it to that use would only serve to retard the independence for provision of this country upon any other. I am very desireous, for that reason, that we should not yet make any reduction in that valuable concern. The superfluous males have occasionally been applied to the feeding the sick. I must, how- ever, here observe that, of the larger stock, the males which may not be requisite for propagation are yet too valuable for laborious purposes to begin to slaughter them for food.

The purchase of sugar  With respect to your Grace’s objection to the purchase of sugar, I beg to inform you, my Lord, that it is issued as a part of the establish’d ration, and if we had none we shou’d find it necessary to serve either an additional quantity of salt meat or of grain, either of which wou’d be found in general more expensive. The ration originally establish’d in this country consisted of various articles, as in the margin. W e now issue only salt meat, or in lieu fresh pork, and wheat or wheat meal, together with a small quantity of sugar.

A further letter in August 1799 detailed the numbers of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs in the colony. There were 192 bulls and oxen, 517 cows, 5103 sheep and 1851 goats. Fresh pork was more likely to be on the menu, with 3459 hogs listed. Most of the cattle were government-owned, officers of the Corps owned most of the sheep, while settlers’ livestock consisted mainly of goats and pigs.

John Hunter had a troubled time in the colony. Members of the New South Wales Corps undermined him in letters to Lord Portland and had control of much of the trade. Among the food concerns was the huge profit margin the officers were making on commodities purchased from visiting ships. The English government was reluctant to spend too much on supporting the new settlement and Hunter’s requests for additional supplies were not well received.

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