1806 Food crisis in Van Diemen’s Land

Governor David Collins

Within three years of the first settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, food supplies were so low the Governor needed to requisition stores from passing ships. In 1806, whalers from the Ferret were flogged for refusing to hand over two casks of biscuits and three casks of flour.

Government livestock in 1804 totalled 21 cattle, 39 sheep and 15 pigs. The free settlers also had some domestic animals. The supplies the settlers brought with them dwindled and, in 1805, 7064lbs of kangaroo meat was issued to supplement their diet. Writing in 1903, using notes kept by his father who was “the first male white child born in Tasmania”, J.J. Hayes asserts that: “At this time the stores of provisions at the commissariat ran short, and the prisoners were liberated to catch  kangaroos, the Governor offering them 1s. 6d. per lb. for all brought into the settlement camp.”

Crops failed and stock died. Collins was forced to reduce rations by one third. However, despite the shortage of food in the Van Diemen’s Land colony, there was no shortage of alcohol. Hayes writes:

“The whole community seemed to give way to intemperance, and the rum keg was the most prominent household vessel, and there was always plenty of that spirit when not a morsel of food could be had for love or money. The Government dealt out a certain quantity of rum to each settler weekly, and even the prisoners got a supply on King’s Birthday.”

It was reported in 1806 that a Lieutenant Lord bought the last pound of tea and paid six guineas for it. “Not an ounce of meal, wheat or anything to be served to the military or prisoners-none in the store for anyone. No ship arrived”.

In 1808, to eke out stores, the government issued regular supplies of kangaroo and emu meat to the people of Hobart Town. The town of Port Dalrymple (now Launceston) in northern Tasmania was similarly short of food. People were reported as eating Botany Bay Greens (Atriplex) a plant related to saltbush, Pig’s Face (Mesembryanthemum) and even whale blubber washed up on the shore.

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