1790 – July, Sydney Cove: The weekly ration ‘without distinction’ stood at ‘two [2] pounds of pork, two and a half [2½] pounds of flour, two [2] pounds of rice, or a quart of pease, per week to every grown person, and to every child of more than eighteen [18] months old. To every child under eighteen [18] months old, the same quantity of rice and flour, and one [1] pound of pork.

When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork…from England had been salted between three [3] and four [4] years… a daily morsel toast[ed] on a fork catching the drops on a slice of bread, or in a saucer of rice…every grain was a moving body from the inhabitants lodged within it…flour brought from the Cape by Sirius [May 1789] soldiers and convicts used to boil it up with greens’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay: At 2.15pm on 18 January 1788 HMS Supply, one (1) of a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ with a complement of 1500 souls (one-half convicted criminals) anchored in the entrance to Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

‘Notwithstanding all the care and attention [Phillip] bestowed on the preparations, it was found on arrival that many of the stores were short in quantity, poor in quality, or absent altogether’. Commentary, Historical Records of Australia,  Series 1, Vol. 1.   

‘The main battle was about having enough to eat’. The Story of Australia, Don, 1984.

1788 – 18 January, Botany Bay : At 3 pm Governor Phillip first set foot on Australian soil. He was seeking fresh water….Later that afternoon, some of them [Aborigines] directed him to a stream nearby. Royal Australian Historical Society Minutes, cited in Botany Bay, Where Histories Meet, Maria Nugent, 2005. 

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: After eight (8) months voyaging across 13,000 miles (21,000 km) of ‘imperfectly explored oceans’ the ‘First Fleet, commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, lay at anchor off Bare Island in Botany Bay. See: Apollo 11 – Fly Me To The Moon

1788 – 21 January, Sydney Cove: Phillip judged there was insufficient fresh water at Botany Bay to support permanent settlement for such a large number – 1500. He led a team of scouts nine (9) miles (14 km) north of Botany Bay where they found an abundance of fresh running water – the  Tank Stream – at Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson .

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: On the morning of the 23 January two (2) French ships L’Astrolabe and La Boussole,  commanded by Captain Jean-Francois La Perouse appeared over the horizon. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half Head

1788 – 24 January, Sydney Cove: Three (3) years earlier, August 1785 from the shadows, Arthur Phillip had watched these  French ships make a difficult exit from Brest Harbour. Now in 1788 Phillip the spy not wishing to be recognised, at first light boarded HMS Supply  and sailed off to Sydney Cove. See: Arthur Phillip The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

1788 – 25 January, Botany Bay: Despite dangerous conditions putting his ships at risk, Phillip ordered the English fleet follow him to Port Jackson; ‘here a Thousand Sail of the Line might ride in perfect Security.’

1788 – 26 January, Botany Bay: Foul weather kept the English in, and the Frenchmen out of Botany Bay, until the 26th of January.

‘Before leaving Botany Bay Phillip had messages painted on the rocks of Bare Island near where the Fleet had been moored, to guide the ships which Phillip believed were following closely from England to Sydney Cove. This painted message was later replaced by a wooden notice erected on the island. Bruce Mitchell, The Australian Story and Its Background, 1965.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: All First Fleet ships were in Sydney Cove by late afternoon on the 26th January 1788 where earlier Governor Phillip had erected the Union Jack and claimed New Holland for Britain. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half Head

Immediately on disembarking male convicts were set to work unloading Fishburn, Golden Grove and Borrowdale the fleet’s three (3) stores-ships. A careful inventory revealed food reserves to be grossly inadequate even for a short time. The first reduction was made within weeks of arrival.

1788 – 13 March: ”The commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5] kg] per hundredweight [50.8kg] of beef and 8 lb [3.5kg] in the hundredweight of pork (i.e. 100 lb of beef must be cut into 28 pieces, and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces)’. Historical Records. ibid.

Before leaving Portsmouth, even though Phillip anticipated the fleet would be resupplied within a matter of ‘months’, he requested the Navy’s Victualling Board for an increase in the allocation of portable soup, initially a meagre ‘fifty [50 lb] pounds’.

‘As it is probably the ship’s [Sirius] company [160] will be on salt provisions for some months after they arrive on the coast of New South Wales, [I] will be glad of two hundred pounds of portable soup in addition to fifty pounds already supply’d. Letter to Sir Charles Middleton, 22 March 1787, Arthur Phillip

Portable soup: ‘From 1757 onwards; the British Navy issued a vital and innovative substance known as portable soup. Essentially it was a dried soup made from ‘all the offals of oxen killed in London for the use of the Navy’, mixed with salt and a few vegetables. Stephen R. Bown, Scurvy, Penguin, 2003

Governor Phillip had good reason for his assumption as records show he was told: ‘A further number of convicts, which you may expect will shortly follow you from hence [England]’. Instructions to Arthur Phillip, London, 25th April 1787.

When no ships came it became clear survival would depend on appropriating fish and crustacean the local Aborigines’ primary source of protein.

During Sydney’s summer months fish was plentiful, HMS Sirius and Supply’s trawling nets were deployed daily, as much as ‘400 hundred weight of fish being taken up…sailors hauling the net at a cove close to the mouth of the harbour had some trouble with a party of natives’.

Weeks passed to months and still no ships. Winter came fish was scarce, two (2) populations – one indigenous one introduced – competed with increasing hostility for the same resources but without equity; trawling nets versus spear, hook and vine.

1788 – January: While the seine was hauling some of them [Aborigines] were present….No sooner were the fish out of the water than they began to lay hold of them as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own; upon which the officer of the boat, I think very properly, restrained them giving, however, to each of them a part.

They did not at first seem very well pleased with this mode of procedure, but on observing with what justice this fish was distributed they appeared content’. Dr John White, First Fleet Journal.

1788 – May: Most cattle purchased by Governor Phillip at Cape Town died on the long sixty-eight (68) day leg to Sydney. In May 1788 the cattle that sailed in the Lady Penrhyn  – one (1) bull and five (5) cows – wandered off into the bush. Separated from the herd the remaining cow went mad, was shot and eaten.

1788 – WINTER

‘It has been imagined in England, that some, if not considerable savings of provisions might be made by the quantities of fish that it was supposed would be taken’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal

London had not reckoned on seasonal conditions in the southern hemisphere where, in autumn-winter months (March to August) fish leave Sydney waters to spawn.

1788 – 8 July:  ‘A party of natives came to the place where the Sirius’s boat had been to haul the seine, and having beaten the crew took from them by force a part of the fish they had caught’. White. ibid

The Navy Victualling Board’s initial allocation, a measly ‘fifty pounds [of ] a vital substance portable soup’ for two (2) king’s ships HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, together with Phillip’s belief, supplies would reach him within ‘some months’, is supporting evidence relief vessels were expected by mid-1788 at the very latest.

1788 – mid July, to England: By September 1788 the European population reduced significantly when approximately four hundred (400) merchant seamen, crew of eight (8) of (9) chartered vessels, sailed for home. Many merchant-men, weakened by starvation and scurvy, died on the return voyage to England. See: Asleep In The Deep – The Merchantmen of the First Fleet.

1788 – August: Still no ships – Phillip made contingency plans ordering Captain John Hunter RN prepare HMS Sirius for a voyage to Africa.

Sirius’ timbers, strained on her long voyage from England to Australia, were strengthened to withstand mountainous seas and gale force winds rounding Cape Horn. To the consternation of both captain and crew Sirius was stripped of her guns.

‘These people [Aborigines] last summer would neither eat shark nor stingray; but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe, obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment…they certainly are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support’. Dispatch Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788.

1788 – September: Phillip reduced the weekly ration by one-third and activated his contingency plan.

1788 – 2 October, Cape Town: HMS Sirius, commanded by Captain John Hunter RN, sailed alone from Sydney to purchase food from the Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope. Hunter set a tough dangerous course that took Sirius deep into southern oceans with its myriad ‘Islands of Ice’ to round stormy Cape Horn.

1788 – November, Sirius at sea: ‘Our people now began to grow Sick what for the want of Fresh Provisions and Thick foggy weather together seized them with Pains in the Breast & Bones & as soon as they kept their bed the Scurvy broke out’. Midshipman Newton Fowell, Sirius Letters 1786-1790 ed. Nancy Irvine, Fairfax Library, 2007

If as Phillip feared, Sirius hit an iceberg or even if the ship made it safely to Africa and a hostile niggardly Dutch colonial administration delayed Captain Hunter and, should she not survive a treacherous return passage, the game would be up for the marooned Englishmen at Sydney Cove.

Phillip faced with such uncertainty ordered tiny Supply (170 tons) and, his one (1) remaining chartered stores ship Golden Grove, ferry more people to Norfolk Island. Earlier, in February 1788, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN had established a small settlement there in order to stymie the French and eventually cause La Perouse and his men, who sailed from Botany Bay on 10 March 1788, to lose their lives.


‘To every person in the settlement without distinction: 4 lbs flour, 2½ lbs salt pork and 1½ lbs of rice per week. We soon left off boiling the pork as it had become so old and dry that it shrunk ½ in its dimensions when so dressed’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

1789 – April, Sydney:  In April 1789 smallpox appeared among Sydney’s Aborigines killing 50% of their number. Starvation and disease go hand-in-hand. However at Sydney in 1789 everyone – English and Indigenous – were starving yet the smallpox virus was impossibly selective. See: A Lethal Weapon – Smallpox: Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

‘A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicable, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community.’ People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998

Joseph Jefferies was the one (1) exception he died of smallpox in May 1789. In August 1787 the young Native American adventurer from Staten Island signed as crew on HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ re-provisioned at Rio De Janeiro. See: Joseph Jefferies From New York to Rio to Old Sydney Town – : One – Then There was None.

1789 –  8 May, to Sydney: Meanwhile in May 1789 HMS Sirius returned from Africa with limited amounts of poor quality flour and some rice, most intended for Royal Navy personnel and what could be spared for the colony.

1790 – WINTER 

‘Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides….We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England, in which long period no supplies except what has been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius has reached us’. Tench. ibid.

The fate of the expected relief ships was unknown. As in the previous year 1789, grain crops shallow-rooted in Sydney’s sandy soil failed to mature, cattle purchased at Cape Town in 1787 had either died or disappeared.

Although goat’s milk and cheese would have been available there was no cow’s milk and therefore no serendipitous cow-pox.   By mid 1790 the supplies brought by HMS Sirius from Africa were almost exhausted so the ration issue was further reduced.

In March 1790 Phillip, knowing deaths from smallpox in the Aboriginal population the previous year (1789) had shifted the balance in favour of European survival, drew on that experience and halved his numbers. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

1790 – 5 March, Norfolk Island: HMS Sirius, accompanied by HMS Supply, sailed for Norfolk Island with 50% of Sydney’s European population and six (6) months supply of flour and rice.

1790 – 19 March, Norfolk Island: HMS Sirius successfully landed her human cargo then ran aground on a submerged reef. In ‘pounding surf’ she broke up over time, fortunately before the stricken ship sank below the waves most supplies and all personnel were retrieved.

The sinking was a disaster as Phillip’s plan was for Sirius sail onto China for help while Supply would return to Sydney and continue to trawl for fish.

However this plan had presented Governor Phillip with a problem. Without one hundred and sixty (160) Royal Naval personnel – crew of HMS Sirius – he would be defenceless in the face of a hungry, demoralised marine garrison commanded by Marine Major Robert Ross whose behaviour bordered on open rebellion.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problem, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’.  John Moore, The First Fleet Marines 1786-1792, University of Queensland Press, 1987 

Governor Phillip partly remedied that particular situation by appointing Major Ross Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island and ordering Lieutenant Phillip King RN, a trusted long-time friend who in 1788 established the island settlement, return to Sydney to act as confidant.

We are now on this little island 506 souls’ the Sirius crew now  stranded on the island along with the evacuees placed severe strain on the flour and rice taken from Sydney.

Besides fish, mutton birds, their eggs and chicks, became the isolated settlement’s main source of protein. Adult birds were bludgeoned to death with their oil harvested for fuel. Major Ross tried and failed to limit the numbers slaughtered.

‘Ross initially proposed that everyone could take three [3] birds a day; ‘but when the weekly ration of meat was reduced to one and one-half [1½] pounds, he proposed allowing everyone to ‘bring in as many as they thought proper…the resulting slaughter and nightly havoc was beyond Description [Marine Lieutenant Ralph] Clark recorded that the number of birds killed jumped from between 600 and 800 a day to between 2000 and 3000. Clark, Cited in Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press, 2001

Without the mutton bird it is doubtful these ‘First Fleet’ hunters and gatherers could have survived for long after the departure of HMS Supply.

1790 – 5 April, to Sydney: HMS Supply returned from Norfolk Island with devastating news – HMS Sirius was lost and with her all hope a China rescue. At Sydney the supply position was so critical that same evening Phillip called a Governor-in-Council meeting.

1790 – April, Sydney: ‘The pease was all expended…two pounds of pork, when boiled, from the length of time it had been in store, shrunk away to nothing; and when divided among seven people for the day’s sustenance, barely afforded three or four morsels to each’. Judge Advocate Captain David Collins, Journal, Sydney Cove. 

Even if further reductions were made; ‘salted pork could last only until 2 July, flour – 20 August, the rice and dried pease (dahl) until 1 October 1790’. Collins. ibid.

There was nothing for it but to send the tiny Supply (170) tons to Batavia, modern day Jakarta. There her captain, Lieutenant Ball RN, was to buy food and medicines and charter a Dutch ship (Waaksamheyd) to bring four hundred (400) tons of urgently needed provisions to Sydney.

HMS Supply was quite unsuitable for such a strenuous task. The unspoken fear among those stranded at Sydney since January 1788 was, she would never make it to Batavia, let alone return safely to Sydney.

The spoken fear was just as scary, there was no hope of escape for over one thousand (1000) Robinson Cruscos trapped at the end of the earth and with no ships there would be no trawling.

1790 – 16 April, to Batavia: Lieutenant Ball sailed HMS Supply down the harbour, out through Sydney Heads into the open sea and set course for Jakarta.

At Sydney, despite the evacuation of 50% of the English population to Norfolk Island, the ration issue was barely sufficient to sustain life. What remained of the salted meats brought from England contained little nutrient and no vitamins.

In this desperate atmosphere the systematic plunder of Aboriginal resources ramped up. Day and night teams of fishermen went out in small boats. Organised groups of hunters with guns and greyhounds roamed the bush to hunt and scavenge the Aborigines’ food.

1790 – June 1790, Sydney: In June the south eastern coast of Australia is subjected to severe storms. On the 3rd of June 1790 in the teeth of one such east-coast low weather system Lady Juliana one (1) of four (4) vessels comprising a second fleet –‘Britain’s Grim Armada – anchored in Sydney Cove with two hundred and twenty-six (226) relatively healthy ‘useless’ women prisoners.

But apart from a small number of sheep saved from the wreck of Australia’s Titanic,  HMS Guardian, Lady Juliana brought little food or medicines for the settlement.

1790 – 27-28-29 June, Sydney: Off the coast bad weather delayed Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize the fleet’s 2nd division ships – until late June 1790. During the voyage 25% – two hundred and seventy-six (276) of one thousand (1,000) male and seventy-eight (78 female) convicts embarked at Plymouth onto these three (3) shameful ships died.

Greedy masters not only withheld prisoners’ full food ration they sanctioned them to be chained and locked below decks during the voyage thus condoning the behaviour of their brutal military guards – first contingent of infantry – the New South Wales Corps – raised to replace the ‘troubled’ marines of the Sydney Garrison who were now overdue for repatriation. See: A Second Fleet – Britain’s Grim Armada – The Dead and the Living Dead

Approximately 15% of those convicts landed alive died within a month or three (3) of arrival while many survivors never regained their physical, mental and moral health. The Second Fleet placed great strain on Governor Phillip’s extremely limited resources.

1790 – June: A stores-ship Justinian had arrived off Sydney two (2) weeks earlier (2nd June) but wild storms forced Benjamin Maitland her master take her far out to sea. Maitland sailed one hundred (100) nautical miles north of Sydney to seek shelter at Black Head near the entrance to Port Stephens.

1790 – July: Justinian brought the first supplies from England and without doubt her arrival at the beginning of July 1790 averted complete disaster but as explained Justinian had very nearly gone the way of HMS Guardian. See HMS Guardian & Joseph Bank’s Garden   

Tragically if the Eora Peoples of Sydney thought the Englishmen who descended on their resources like a plague of locusts would, in the name of justice and equity, share Justinian’s bounty they were sadly mistaken; what was given was given grudgingly.


‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross’. Moore. ibid.

1790 June, Sydney Cove: That statement held true until the arrival of Lieutenant John Macarthur Pride & Elizabeth Macarthur Prejudice who despised Mary Johnson, wife Richard Johnson Chaplain of the First Fleet and, the only other English woman of comparable ‘station’ in the colony yet; ‘a person in whose society I [Elizabeth] can reap neither profit nor pleasure’. Early Records of the Macarthurs. See: Machiavellian Macarthur

1790- 17 December, from Batavia: Waaksamheyd, the Dutch vessel chartered by Lieutenant Ball at Jakarta arrived in Sydney with much needed food and medical supplies. Waaksamheyd brought hope of escape.Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany Bay Escapees

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