Food on board

Emigrants at dinner Emigrants at dinner. The Illustrated London News 1844

Perhaps nothing was more important to the contentment of migrants on board ships bound for South Australia than the regular and ample supply of good food, prepared well. Often the reality fell well short of the ideal. This was especially the case for steerage passengers, whose food was much inferior to that of cabin-class passengers.

Yet steerage passengers often had a better diet on board ship than they had been used to on land. In 1836, their rations were based on those provided on convict ships and outlined in the current Passenger Act. Rations were distributed weekly – twice weekly for meat – and included bread, oatmeal, preserved cabbage, vinegar, various preserved meats, pickled fish, flour, suet, peas, sugar, tea, coffee and mustard. Cabin-class passengers fared much better. They dined at their captains’ tables and enjoyed fresh meat, milk and eggs supplied daily from livestock carried on board.

The general rations on emigrant ships, however, could vary greatly in quantity and quality. The greed of ship owners or suppliers, the filching of supplies by crew members, the skill and temperament of ships’ cooks and stormy weather could all affect the quality of meals. Rations were not distributed to individuals, but to messes of between six and ten people. Each mess elected a captain –always a man, as women were not permitted to fraternise with cooks – to collect and distribute food. Many disputes resulted from the real or perceived favouritism of some mess captains.

In the 1830s the slow pace of the voyage to South Australia worked in the favour of emigrants. Sea captains were prepared to call at places such as the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town to take on fresh provisions.  For example, in 1839, the Indus called at Port Praia (Cape Verde Islands) and collected turkeys, fowls, pigs, sheep, oranges, bananas, pumpkins and pineapples. Ironically, the cabin-class passengers were least in need of supplementing their diet, but best placed to take advantage of this practice.

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