Provisioning the voyage

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

Emigrating to South Australia meant months on the ocean with limited access to outside goods. Ship masters were responsible for stocking the ships with stores for crew, passengers and even livestock.  Provisioning a ship meant providing enough fresh and preserved food, water, soap and medical comforts for all to survive the four-month or more voyage. As provisions were often quite meagre, passengers could choose to supplement them with tobacco, sugar and other luxuries.

In 1836, provisioning standards for Australian immigration were variable. Some vessels held to the same regulations as earlier convict transport ships and stipulated supplies of bread, oatmeal and biscuit. Not much more than a bread and water diet, this method of rationing resulted in sick or starving passengers. Luckily, South Australia-bound ships provided passengers with set quantities of bread, salt beef or pork, sugar, tea, cocoa, flour, pease, oatmeal and vinegar. Supplies were brought on board in bulk at the start of each voyage, with limited chance for re-provisioning at ports between England and Australia.

Ships often fell prey to unscrupulous provisioning agents. After weeks at sea, stores were opened to expose rotted meats, infested oatmeal and rancid vinegar. Sometimes, casks of salt pork were layered with the best cuts of meat on the top and inferior meat hidden below. However, most ships to South Australia were not under-provisioned. After 1836 immigration agents stationed at Port Adelaide monitored ship stores to assess supply and distribution of provisions during the voyage. This tended to keep suppliers honest.

Anything not listed within standard provisions must be provided by the passenger. What you brought depended on your level of accommodation (first, second or third class). First class passengers tended to pay their own expenses, and lacked for little in the way of comforts. Passengers in third class, or steerage, would bring what they could and make do with what was provided by the ship for the rest. Used to space, fresh meat and vegetables, second class passengers tended to fare worse than in England, while steerage passengers were used to the conditions and considered themselves better off than they had been at home.

Published pamphlets made suggestions for supplementing provided stores and thereby improving passengers’ chances of surviving (or just enjoying) the passage. These included nappies, games for children and adults and whiskey for seasickness.

In a pinch, additional items could be purchased at sea. There was no regular shop on the ship, but those in the know (crew) often carried small quantities of tobacco, tea and sugar (the most sought after items) which they offered at inflated prices. Sometimes the captain made a practice of selling luxuries at a very high price. This was perfectly normal and considered a natural means of increasing his income.

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