Australia in the 1780s


By May 1788, the fledgling colony was experiencing severe food shortages. Many of the cattle that had been brought on the First Fleet had wandered off into the bush. Some of these animals were still being found seven years later. The shortage of food in the colony was exacerbated by the failure of the wheat crop. The soil was poor and there was no manure to fertilise it. The government garden and the plots kept by the officers had also been unsuccessful.

Henry Dodd (d 1791), Governor Arthur Phillip's personal servant and a former farmhand, established a small grain farm at the current site of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens. In July 1788, the farm's first grain harvest failed due to rats, poor soil and being planted out of season. Dodd then moved to Rose Hill (Parramatta) where there was better land for farming. He founded another government farm and the following year his garden produced an 11-kilogram cabbage, which he presented to the governor for Christmas.

The convicts turned to unfamiliar foods for sustenance in times of need. Kangaroos, possums and birds, including emus, were used in stews. The ship HMS Supply was sent to Lord Howe Island, where many turtles had been sighted earlier in the year, but returned empty. The fish in Port Jackson that had been plentiful in summer when the First Fleet arrived were no longer in the same numbers. The change of seasons had affected the fresh food supply and the convicts' unfamiliarity with the country meant that they struggled to survive.

In October 1788, the ship Sirius was sent to Cape Town to gather supplies for the colony. During its absence, Phillip introduced strict rationing. The women of the settlement received two-thirds of the ration for a man. Severe penalties were introduced for anyone caught stealing food. In March 1789, six marines were hanged for consistently robbing the public stores. In December 1788, Charles Wilson, a convict, was the first man to die of starvation.

The convicts suffered from a deficiency in vitamin C caused by a lack of fruits and vegetables in their diet. This eventually led to scurvy, which was the most feared disease of sailors. A variety of symptoms appeared, including open wounds that refuse to heal, bleeding gums, loose teeth and dark purple blotches on the skin. By the end of 1789, the colony was near starvation and a smallpox epidemic was rampant.

A snapshot of 1788

  • January
    • Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson.
    • The wife of Sergeant Thomas Whittle of the marines gave birth to the first non-Indigenous child born in the colony.

  • February
    • The first female convicts arrived at Port Jackson.
    • The Court of Criminal Justice Jurisdiction sat for the first time in the colony.

  • March
    • Lieutenant Philip Gidley King took formal possession of Norfolk Island.

  • June
    • The last of the cattle that arrived on the First Fleet strayed from the settlement. Some of the animals were still being found seven years later.

  • November
    • A colonial settlement was established at Rose Hill.

  • December
    • Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo, a Cadigal man, to find out about Cadigal language and customs.


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