1878 The great rabbit explosion

The Aconcagua

Passengers aboard the Aconcagua had a less-than-pleasant voyage through the Red Sea when 20,000 cans of rabbit meat exploded in the heat.  The rabbits were exported from South Australia, bound for Britain. After the unfortunate rabbit explosion, the stench from rotting meat permeated the ship for many days.

The Suez Canal, a man-made waterway linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, was opened in 1869. It significantly reduced travel times for ships sailing between Australia and Britain. The Aconcagua left The Semaphore, south of Adelaide in mid-August and, following a route through the tropics, would have arrived in the Red Sea at the end of the northern summer.

It may be that, in the process of canning the rabbits, insufficient heat had been applied to kill bacteria within the meat. At that time cans were typically very large and, if heat during processing had not been enough to raise the temperature of the whole contents to a safe level, bacteria could grow. Combined with the heat during transport, this could produce explosive results.

It’s not clear where the canned rabbit came from, but we have a suspect. The first South Australian preserving works were established by the Northern Rabbit Meat Preserving Company between Kapunda and Eudunda in 1877. At its peak, the company was processing 45,000 rabbits a month. It had a brief lifespan, closing down in 1879. Was this, perhaps, a result of reputation damage or financial difficulties following the Aconcagua rabbit explosion?

Further rabbit-processing operations were opened in the 1890s. The Mount Gambier Rabbit and Meat Preserving Company operated for just under 20 years, purchasing up to four million rabbits a year. Their product was apparently more reliable. The Mount Gambier Border Watch reported in 1944 that guests at the Federal Hotel had sampled a can of rabbit meat from the long-defunct company and “were loud in the praise of the quality of the meat”.

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