Australia in the 1790s

Food and crops

The diverse climate and geography of the country reflects distinct seasons that are understood and named by Indigenous groups across Australia. Indigenous seasonal calendars are generally far more complex than those introduced by Europeans and are based on the climatic conditions as well as the availability of resources. The seasons also have a direct effect on social life. For example, gatherings and ceremonies are often based on seasonal patterns when particular resources are in abundance.

From a British perspective, the country's seasons were not suited to the intended purposes of the British. The lack of suitable equipment and the difficulty in clearing and cultivating the thickly wooded land added to Governor Phillip's problems of growing crops and maintaining a healthy supply of staples. Providing enough food to support approximately 1,000 convicts, soldiers and administrators was critical for the first few years. At times, the colony was close to starvation. With this in mind Governor Arthur Phillip (1738–1814) set up a second settlement at Parramatta where the soil was better for farming purposes than at Sydney Cove. In 1789, Phillip awarded a land grant at Parramatta to former convict James Ruse (1760–1837). Ruse was an experienced farmer from Cornwall. He prepared the soil for planting by burning off and digging the ash into the ground and hoeing the ground several times over before planting. By February 1791, his wheat and maize produced a substantial crop. Phillip rewarded him with a further grant of 30 acres. Ruse named his holding 'Experiment Farm'.

The area cultivated by government labour expanded much more rapidly after 1791. By October 1792, some 412 hectares were assigned to crops on the Public Domain. Although livestock was still scarce, important advances had been made towards the attainment of self-sufficiency in grain. The non-Indigenous community was still vitally dependent on overseas supplies for most of its needs, but survival was no longer thought to be impossible.

Relations between the Dharug people in Parramatta and the settlers were fraught with cultural misunderstandings. The Dharug had an intricate understanding of their environment: the seasons, the flora and fauna, and the geography, including significant spiritual sites, which were not understood or respected by the British.

Baluderri, a young Dharug man, became friendly with Governor Phillip and accompanied him on a visit to the Hawkesbury River in 1791. Baluderri began trading fish for goods from the British. Governor Phillip saw this trading as a way of improving relationships between the different Indigenous groups and the colonists. When convicts destroyed Baluderri's canoe, he informed Phillip that he would take revenge. Phillip promised that the convicts would be punished, but Dharug lore required that Baluderri seek retribution. He speared a convict and Governor Phillip declared Baluderri an outlaw, able to be shot on sight. He later relented when Baluderri became seriously ill. When he died, Baluderri was buried in the governor's garden.

A snapshot of 1798

  • January
    • The first public clock was installed in a tower at Church Hill in Sydney.
    • George Bass sighted Wilsons Promontory and Phillip Island.

  • February
    • Matthew Flinders explored the Furneaux Islands in the Bass Strait.
    • Governor John Hunter named Bass Strait in honour of George Bass.

  • May
    • The ship Nautilus arrived at Port Jackson carrying missionaries from the London Missionary Society.

  • June
    • The colonial sloop Norfolk, built on Norfolk Island by convicts, arrived at Port Jackson.

  • October
    • George Bass and Matthew Flinders left Sydney to explore Van Diemen's Land.


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