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Week 13 Food for Thought

[ View the related 'Weekly Post': Week 13 Food for Thought ]

[ View the related 'Weekly Post': Week 13 - tensions reach breaking point ]

This week we join the hungry crew onboard the Cygnet. They are not a happy lot and are full of complaints about the food. They are angry about the dirty cups and plates used to serve bad tea, bad sugar and the scanty supply of meat. The table isn’t even long enough to seat all of the passengers. Let’s take a closer look at what it was like to eat onboard our ships. What kinds of foods were provided? What strategies were used to make the food last and to stop it from rotting?

Emigrant’s eating utensils, 1838. South Australian Maritime Museum collection.

Inquiry Questions:

Inquiry Questions

What do this week’s journal entries tell us about the food and drink provided onboard?

How are the passengers feeling about their food provisions this week?

Why do you think the topic of food evokes such strong responses from the passengers and crew on all three ships?


Research Topics:

Research Topics

What were the typical foods eaten during sea voyages of this era?

How did food provisions vary between the classes of passengers onboard?

What types of meals were prepared using the food and produce provided?

Did children receive the same food as adults?

How did this diet affect the health of the passengers?

What techniques were used to stop food from rotting?



Historical Skills:

Chronology, terms and concepts

Consider how technology has impacted on food storage over time.

Are there any foods provided that you have never eaten before or heard of before?

Which foods from the list do you eat now?

Do we use the same words for naming these foods as were used in 1836?

Historical Questions and research

Passengers were able to bring supplementary provisions with them but some were too poor to do so and were often hungry throughout the journey. The quality of the rations varied greatly from ship to ship.

Form questions and do some research to find out the types of foods passengers would be likely to bring from England in 1836.

Analysis and use of sources

Collect recipe books from different times in history. Compare the types of foods used in cooking, nutritional value of recipes, presentation of recipes, serving sizes and measurement units.

Perspectives and interpretations

Discontent with food and rations reportedly caused more conflict onboard than anything else.

Consider how the following factors would influence passengers experiences with food onboard:

  1. Passengers who came from impoverished homes and found the food rations better than what they were used to
  2. Ship owners or captains who were greedy
  3. Inexperienced people preparing and cooking meals
  4. Corrupt ship’s crew stealing food
  5. Rough weather at sea
  6. Notoriously grumpy and impatient cooks

Explanation and communication

Select a modern day recipe from a cookbook. Could this dish be prepared using the rations provided on an immigrant ship in 1836? How could you alter the recipe using the provisions provided?

Create a recipe using at least 4 of the ingredients from the list below.

Publish your recipe and give it an appetising name.

Activity Suggestions:

  1. The list below shows the typical weekly rations allocated to an adult passenger onboard a ship at this time in history.  The rations were not supplied to individual passengers but in ‘messes’ of 6-10. Each mess elected its own captain to collect and distribute the food. The rations were supplied weekly, but meat twice a week.

Use this information to design a weekly menu. 

  • How would you make the food last for a week?
  • What kinds of meals could you make using these ingredients?
  • A loaf of bread (2-3 pounds)
  • 1 pint of oatmeal
  • ½ pint of preserved cabbage
  • 1 pound of preserved meat
  • 1 pound of salted pork
  • 1 pound of salted beef
  • 3 pounds of flour
  • 6 ounces of suet
  • 2/3 pint of dried peas
  • 7 ounces of sugar
  • 1 ounce of tea
  • 1 ½ ounces of coffee
  • A little mustard

*meat rations were usually provided in twice weekly half pound serves.

 2. Ships captains were required by law to provide enough food for the passengers onboard. The Passenger Act dictated the types of foods and amounts that each passenger was entitled to.

Children between the age of 7 and 15 received half of the adult rations and children younger than 7 received a third of the adult rations.

Can you use the information on the rations list above to work out what your rations would be if you were a passenger on a ship like this?

3.What units of measurement are used to describe the amounts of food in the rations? How would we measure these foods in Australia today?

Use this conversion booklet to re-calculate the rations using modern measurements.

4. Look through modern recipe books or websites and find a recipe that uses some of the ingredients from the rations list. Try cooking some of these recipes. How about a class picnic or recipe book based on 1836 ingredients?

5. Consider how food was preserved before the time of fridges, freezers and eskies. Research different preservation techniques and have a go at making your own preserved fruit straps

6.Fresh water was extremely scare onboard and it was important to make it last. The Passenger Act allowed 3 quarts (approximately 3 litres) of fresh water per adult per day but most of this was given to the ship’s cook for use in cooking.

After a week or two at sea the ‘fresh’ water became so smelly and slimy that the only way to drink was to dilute it with vinegar to kill the unpleasant odours.

A downpour of rain onboard was extremely welcome and passengers would come running with tubs and pots to collect any rain water running off the ship’s sails and awnings. Even though this water tasted like old canvas it was better than the ship’s drinking water. 

If you had to look for water collected onboard after rain where would you look?

Find out which materials absorb the most water.

You’ll need 5 buckets and 5 different types of material (hessian, cotton, vinyl, paper towel, silk, towelling, aluminium foil, plastic etc.)

Cover each bucket with a different type of material. Pour some water onto each material. Which material holds the most water?

What if?

What if the ships were leaving England in 1936 or 2011? In what ways would the food provided onboard be similar or different to 1836?


What do you think?


Consider this statement and form your own opinion:

If the passengers had enough food they would be happy and content.


Stay Tuned


Next week we take a look at how everyone is getting along together onboard our ships. With so many people living in confined conditions at sea, there’s bound to be some disagreements and frayed tempers. What kinds of conflicts are occurring and how are they resolved?

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