What to Eat?

The world’s earliest explorers and navigators set off to discover new lands with the basic survival requirements of water, air, shelter and food, if any one of these basic needs were not met, life would be threatened. The drive to secure food has been a major catalyst throughout history.

The First Fleet voyage to Australia in 1788 was basically provisioned with salt meat, flour, dried peas, butter and rice – complimented by livestock and other produce acquired along the way.

Whilst they sailed their way slowly across the sea, the beginnings of what we know today as canned foods were being developed in Paris, through a heat process originally referred to as ‘preserved provisions’. Had this food technology been realised a little earlier, the years of famine at Port Jackson (Sydney) may have been alleviated and the narrative of that colony along with the first colonial settlement on Norfolk Island would certainly have altered.

Captain Cook’s 1774 discovery of Norfolk Island with its pines, flax and lush vegetation, motivated the British Government’s plan to settle the Island shortly after the First Fleet’s arrival into Port Jackson.

In March 1788, Philip Gidley King and a group of twenty-two people arrived at Norfolk with instructions to clear the land, cultivate the soil and exploit the timber and flax resources. King records: ‘Every foot of ground was covered with trees, or the large roots which rose above the surface of the earth…..no grass, or herb of any kind, grew between the roots of these trees although the soil everywhere was extremely good’.

The founding party was set to work felling trees and clearing ground to plant food crops and graze their meagre stock of farm animals. With a collection of rudimentary, but indispensable and safely guarded tools, a public garden had been planted within two weeks.

The initial settlement was located at the foot of Mt. George, known to us today as Flagstaff. The north-eastern slope was cleared and the soil turned, resulting in successful crops of wheat and barley. Plantings on the southern slopes suffered through the southerly winds. They soon realised that Arthurs Vale was the ideal garden location; sugar cane and orange trees were planted as well as cabbages, turnips, carrots, lettuces, onions, leeks, parsley, celery, corn, artichokes, beetroot, potatoes and yams.

In January 1790, King reports that, ‘during this month a greater number of people have been sick than has been since I landed. The Complaint is mostly diarrhoe [sic], but they soon recover from it. The surgeon thinks it is owing to the Vast quantitys [sic] of Vegetables that are eaten’!

The Island’s crops did suffer damage from storm and pests and at times thrived to the point of self-sufficiency and export capability to support the starving colony at Port Jackson. Watkin Tench, a humble captain-lieutenant of the marines, writes an insightful account of the situation at Port Jackson in 1790: ‘We had been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England, in which no supplies except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius had reached us…… Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides, and gloom and dejection overspread every countenance’.

Governor Phillip ordered the Sirius to sail to China for supplies, depositing a large detachment of marines and over two hundred convicts on Norfolk Island en route. A fateful voyage, as she wrecked on Norfolk’s reef in March 1790.

All hopes for both colonies were now concentred in the little Supply, an armed tender, much smaller than the Sirius. At Port Jackson rations were decreased even further to – two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of peas per week, to every grown person and to every child more than eighteen months old. To every child under eighteen months old, the same quantity of rice and flour, and one pound of pork. (A pound is approximately half a kilogram and a quart is approximately 1 litre.)

The pork and rice were remaining from the original supplies from the First Fleet voyage. The pork had been salted for nearly four years and every grain of rice was a moving body from the inhabitants living within it.

They soon ceased boiling the pork, as it had become so old and dry that it shrunk one half in its dimensions. They began cooking it by cutting off the daily morsel and toasting it on a fork over a fire, catching the drops as they fell onto a slice of bread, or in a saucer of rice. The situation was relieved when on 20 June, the Justinian entered Sydney Harbour laden entirely with provisions for their use.

Apart from freshly killed game and fish from Sydney Harbour, salted meat was the only flesh available, so salted meat from Norfolk was imported to keep up with demand. The salt was made by boiling sea water, however it was generally bitter due to the unseparated magnesium chloride that is naturally present. Pigs multiplied prodigiously on Norfolk Island, resulting in a record of 264 tons of meat produced in the five years following the end of 1791.

Another of the basic food technologies brought out with the First Fleet besides salting was milling. Captain John Hunter, as Governor of NSW in 1794, provided Sydney with its first windmill at Millers Point in 1797. On Norfolk, a watermill and two windmills were in operation by 1796. A set of Norfolk millstones, three feet in diameter, bound with iron and with all the accessories was advertised for sale in the Sydney Gazette in 1806. These were small ones, for stones up to five feet and frequently over four feet, were exported.

John Grant, a 27 year old convict transported to NSW in 1804, was a prolific correspondent, writing regularly to his mother and sister. His letters are presented by Yvonne Cramer in her book ‘This Beauteous, Wicked Place’, providing us with a pictorial account of the island at that time. Grant writes: “I was never so impressed by a district. The terrain resembles our delicate earth in England, put in garden pots when you wish to grow unusual plants – as a result gardening in a soil so delicate resembles more the efforts used by our ladies in England to assure that their gardens are always a pleasure to promenade in, weeding, themselves, their favourite paths.

You have here the harvest twice in the 12 months and every kind of grain that you can put in the ground. I arrived between them in their winter – it was still warm enough in the middle of the day. …. Our pigeons and our English cats often leave their domicile for the rocks and thickets for preference, so delicious and gentle is the climate! And abundance rules around us!

The inhabitants, the Islanders of Norfolk, since its establishment as an English colony in 1788, have made it appear a large pig sty. Each farmer possesses at least 20 acres of land surrounded by stakes place zig-zag one on top of the other, where the pigs live, getting their food from the abundant vines of differing varieties growing in profusion in different parts of this Isle. A little Indian corn is given to them twice a day so that they know their owners. The goats, which have escaped from their fences in troops, have multiplied tremendously and live in a wild state amongst the rocks around us and become the property of anyone who can catch them. The chickens also survive here in the woods in abundance, but those in abundance also in the houses of the inhabitants become the prizes of savage cats – the people never go to look for them – but Turkeys, of all the animals, prosper here the most – so large and so fat! …………………. Ah, how fine and abundant it is! The most delicious fruits here are the red-currant from the Cape of Good Hope, the Melon, the Fig, the Banana – the latter were ripe at the moment of my arrival and I thought that I would never stop eating them. But our cabbages here are beautiful beyond description, and when boiled with their incomparable pork, taste delicious. The flesh of the Pig (which has been fattened on Indian Corn) expands with the heat when cooked instead of shrivelling up. This Island will be a little Paradise on Earth when Freedom stimulates its Inhabitants to make an effort!”

Notwithstanding this last statement by John Grant, freedom had stimulated the settlers of this Island to cultivate the land. The first ex-convict settler on Norfolk Island was Richard Phillimore, granted 10 acres of land in 1790, where he lived up until his departure to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1807. He died in Hobart in 1825. The ‘Hobart Town Gazette’ claimed that Richard was one of the first who landed at Sydney and Norfolk Island, the first to receive a Certificate of Freedom in the Colony, the first to turn grain in to the Government Stores at Norfolk Island and the first to partake of that grain in his rations.

A new era of Island settlement commenced in March 1790 with the arrival of a new Commandant, Major Robert Ross, a company of marines the Sirius crew (who were enforced to stay) and a number of relocating Port Jackson residents. By April 1790, all but 40 of the 191 male convicts were engaged in agriculture. Major Ross encouraged the convicts to form small food-producing units enabling them to support themselves. These units of people were provided with land, livestock, seeds and release from public labour on certain days – and encouragement to develop family groups.

Major Ross stated, ‘it is expected that the convicts who are indulged with the privilege of maintaining themselves shall be classed together, not less than three to a family, women and children included. And for the further encouragement to such male convicts as are desirous to maintain the females, such females should not be called upon by the Public to do any work, except in hoeing the corn upon an appearance of rain, or picking the caterpillars or grubs from the corn, or any other work of evident necessity’.

Small townships developed around the Island throughout 1791. It was reported that the Island had 198 heads of convict households residing on blocks of land ranging in size from a quarter to six acres. (ref. First Settlement, Raymond Nobbs

Additional time expired convicts continued to settle on grants of land on the Island, but these grants of land had conditions attached. The land owner had to become independent of the public food store within twelve months and they were required to maintain a woman, and after twelve months, another male convict was to be taken off the public food store and maintained by the landholder.

Despite this apparently evolving society on the Island, the British Government found it too expensive to maintain and had declared that it should be evacuated as early as 1803; evacuations actually commenced in 1807. And food support was no longer necessary for the Port Jackson colony. Many settlers were reluctant to go as they were attached to their homes and gardens and the comforts that life on Norfolk had to offer. The homes and public buildings were burnt and most of the stock slaughtered and salted down with the last remaining settlers departing in February 1814. Today it is difficult to spot the remaining evidence of these early colonial settlers on Norfolk Island’s landscape.

The Norfolk Island Museum tells of our Island’s history, including the stories of early colonial settlers of Norfolk Island through the display of cultural material and a vast collection of objects in the Commissariat Store Museum and the Sirius Museum located in the World Heritage Listed Kingston and Arthurs Vale Historic Area (KAVHA) and if you think about – most of these objects can connect us to food.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 01 Issue 02, 2017. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.


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