Trade in Food and Clothing

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Nine members of the crew of the Neptune (1790) claimed that at Portsmouth and shortly after sailing, the convicts were so hungry that they traded their clothing for food. The evidence of such a trade is strong: what is not so clear is why it occurred.

1. It is evident that the convicts were selling surplus clothing, or at least clothing they regarded as surplus. Crew member, Charles King, stated that the convicts were selling the articles they had just been issued by government. The convicts had been supplied with two sets of most articles – two shirts, two pairs of trousers and two pairs of drawers, a jacket and a waistcoat, two pairs of stockings and two pairs of shoes, a hat, a worsted cap – one of the shirts, trousers and drawers, and one pair of the shoes and the stockings might have been regarded as surplus, at least for the present, as well as the hat and the cap.

Joseph Sharp said that one of the convicts sold some gloves – which are obviously a personal article, but ones that could well have been stolen or regarded as surplus. Given how cold it was, they were probably an article of significant value, and undoubtedly sold for more than half a pint of water (Sharp is the only informant to claim that water was involved in the trading and I would conclude from this that he was lying.)

2. Several of the narratives make it clear that the trade occurred shortly after the convicts were issued with their government slops. The articles in question are described as new. There is evidence from Sabuston that a similar trade occurred shortly after the slops were issued on the Surprize – this was while the ship was in the Downs, when there convicts were evidently not starving.

3. Five of the nineteen recorded trades (or 25%) were for said to be for money and not for food – which would been of little value to the men if they were, as claimed, perishing for want of food and water.

4. Two of the crew members, Charles King and John Joseph, were cooks and they had ready access to left-over food. The evidence suggests that they were trading in a significant way, particularly King. Most of the crew members could only trade in small amounts – a few pence or a few biscuits. This is what we would expect – those with ready access to surplus food were more actively involved in trading – the cooks and the stewards often played this role on board.

5. There is a significant amount of evidence from other ships and from the colony that convicts actively traded in food and clothing, and would lie and cheat in order to obtain articles with which they could trade.

Trade on the Second Fleet

Convict Sold
Seaman Paid
New pair of shoes 4 biscuits John Beale
Pair of shoes 3 biscuits Robert Fletcher
New pair of shoes 3 biscuits John Rogers
Two pair of new trousers 6 biscuits John Rogers
New shirt 3 biscuits William Sabuston (this was on the Surprize in the Downs, just after they had sailed, and he saw several cases of it)
1 new shirt 2½ biscuits Charles King
2 new shirts Some small bread (= 4-5 biscuits) Charles King
1 dozen new shoes Cuttings of beef for the cabin, potato skins, cabbage leaves Charles King
Several articles of clothing Bread and slush Charles King (of John Joseph, the cook)
New shirt 6 biscuits Robert Wright
Pair of trousers 4 biscuits Robert Wright
New pair of shoes 6d Robert Wright
Shirt that had been washed once 2½ biscuits Joseph Collins/Silk
New hat 2d Joseph Collins/Silk
New pair of shoes 6d Richard Tonkin
New pair of shoes 1/- (out of sympathy) Richard Tonkin
Pair of gloves Half a pint of water Joseph Sharp
New pair of shoes 2d Joseph Sharp
New shirt and a pair of stockings A threepenny loaf Joseph Sharp

John Beale:

". . . the said convicts were reduced to such Necessity for want of proper provisions and water that they would sell any thing they were poss’d of for a mere Trifle and this Examin’t bought a new pair of Shoes of one of them for 4 Biscuits." (TNA TS11/381, p.4)

". . . many of the said convicts had but one Garment of a Sort delivered to them when they were Shipped at Stokes Bay (some of which several of them immediately sold) & that very few of them received a Second Garment of a Sort, this Exam’t having seen several of the Convicts sitting Naked below whilst their Shirts were washing & having been informed by the Washermen that such Convicts had only one Shirt given them for the Voyage.

"Saith he had seen a Convict whose shirt has been lost by the Washermen apply to the s’d Wm Elrington without any Shirt on his Body complaining that the Washermen had lost his Shirt, but such Convict no relief nor any other Shirt given to him. (TNA TS11/381, p.9)

Robert Fletcher:

"". . . the Convict on Board that said Ship at Stokes Bay were very scantily supplied with provisions and water, insomuch that many of them were Induced to Sell their Cloaths to buy Bread – that he bought of one of the said Convicts a pair of Shoes for three Biscuits." (TNA TS11/381, p.29)

John Rogers:

". . . as soon as he Embarked on Board the said Ship he was astonished at the Cruelty of confining so many poor Convicts in so small a Compass on the Orlop Deck and this Examinant found that they were in a Starving condition, as they would offer any part of their Cloaths for a Bit of Bread or drink of Water.

"Saith that he bought a pair of new Shoes for 3 Biscuits, two pair of new Trousers for 6 Biscuits." (TNA TS11/381, p.30)

William Sabuston:

". . . the said Ship [the Surprize] having proceeded to Gravesend the said Convicts were put upon a Small and Scanty allowance of bad provisions which had been provided for them – insomuch that to Supply their present Necessities this Examinant hath seen several of the said Convicts Sell to the Seamen of the said Ship when in the Downs a new Shirt for three Biscuits." (TNA TS11/381, p.33)

Charles King:

". . . the allowance of Beef was so small that the said Convicts during their Stay at Portsmouth were in a state of continual Hunger and such of them as had given their Money to any of the Ship’s Company to keep for them or otherwise hid & concealed the same would give very extravagant prices for the most trifling quantity of Meat, Bread, Water or other Sustenance and such as had no Money would Sell the very Shirts off their Backs Trowsers & Shoes they had received for the purchase of a little Food.

"Saith that during the s’d Ship’s lying at Stokes Bay he bought of different Convicts 3 new Shirts for one of which he gave two Biscuits & an half, for the others some small Bread making about 4 or 5 Biscuits.

"Saith that he bought about a dozen new pair of Shoes of the Convicts which had only been worn a few Days, for the cuttings off the Beef which he dished for the Cabin, the Skins of the Potatoes & the outside leaves of the Cabages boiled for the Captain’s use during the s’d Ship’s stay at Stokes Bay. . . by which reason many of the s’d Convicts had neither Shirts nor Shoes before they left Portsmouth and this Exam’t likewise saw John Joseph – the Ship’s Cook (who afterwards died at Macao through the ill treatment of the s’d Trail and Elrington his Mate) buy sev’l articles of Cloathing of the s’d Convicts for Bread or Skimmings of Coppers (called on board ships Slush)." (TNA TS11/381, p.45)

Robert Wright:

". . . the Convicts when at Stokes Bay were in a starving Condition for want of proper Victuals & Water, and this Exam’t hath seen a Convict offer half a Crown for a pint of Water, that he this Exam’t bought a new Shirt for 6 Biscuits, a pair of new Trowsers for 4 Biscuits, a pair of new Shoes for Sixpence." (TNA TS11/381, p.50)

Joseph Collins/Silk:

". . . the Convicts during the s’d Ship’s stay at Stokes Bay seemed in general to be Starving & this Examin’t bought a Shirt, which had been once wetted, for 2 Biscuits & a half, & a new hat for 2 pence." (TNA TS11/381, p.52)

Richard Tonkin:

". . . many of the Convicts were in a starving Condition for want of Victuals & Water whilst the s’d Ship lay at Stokes Bay insomuch that many of them were induced to Sell their Cloaths to supply themselves with Bread; Saith that he this Exam’t bought of one of the Convicts a new pair of Shoes for Sixpence and might have had another pair for Sixpence but taking pity on the Convict who sold the same & thinking it a hardship that they sh’d be obliged to Sell their things almost for nothing this Exam’t insisted upon giving one Shilling for the second pair." (TNA TS11/381, p.54)

Joseph Sharp:

". . . the Convicts on board the said Ship during the s’d Ship’s stay at Stokes Bay were in a sad & miserable Condition & fed so scantily that this Examinant has bought a pair of Gloves for half a pint of Water, a pair of new Shoes for two pence, a new Shirt & a pair of Stockings for a threepenny loaf. . ." (TNA TS11/381, p.56)

Other Examples of Trade

First Fleet (1787)

There is evidence to suggest that prior to leaving the hulks, some of the convicts had been selling their provisions – presumably in an attempt to acquire cash for trade on board the transports:

19 April 1787 – Duncan Campbell responded to a letter from Thomas Hurst at the Fortunee. Hurst had reported that the convicts had been selling their provisions. Campbell wrote that every endeavour must be made to stop this ‘pernicious’ custom. ‘Surely this is not impossible.’

The comparison you make with those in the public hospital may be very just but I have always held our ships to have been even better attended than any of the Navy hospitals afloat. (Duncan Campbell, ‘Duncan Campbell Papers, 1766-1802’, 8 Volumes, Mitchell Library, SLNSW, A 3225 (Safe1/413) to A3232 (Safe1/420), published as ‘The Letterbooks and Papers of Duncan Campbell, 1726-1803’, Marlborough: Adam Matthews Publications, n.d., Vol.5, p.294)

Port Jackson (1789)

Such practices continued in the settlement – in February 1789, David Collins reported that an order was issued enabling those selling their clothes to report the sale to the Provost Marshal, upon which they would be given them again without charge and without punishment, and they would be allowed to keep the consideration of the sale. It made little difference. (David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales [1798], Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, Vol.1, p.44)

Port Jackson (1790)

Reverend Johnson wrote that after the Second Fleet convicts had landed at Sydney Cove, some of them obtained two, three or four sets of slops, and in one case, six, from government in order to profit from the sale of the surplus. (Johnson to Thornton, July 1790, NA CO201/6/353-356a)

Collins reported that some of the convicts ‘had recourse to stratagem’ to obtain more than their share of medical necessaries, most particularly wine, ‘by presenting themselves, under different names and appearances, to those who had the delivery of them, or by exciting the compassion of those who could order them’. They were also stealing blankets from the sick, and cold only be prevented from doing so by the utmost vigilance on the part of those supervising them. (David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales [1798], Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, Vol.1, pp.100-101)

Government Orders (1791)

11 February 1791 –

"Although repeated Orders have been given, to prevent the Convicts from Selling or exchanging their Provisions issued from the Public Stores for Money Spirits or Tobacco that Practice is still continued, and as those who sell their own provisions must support themselves by stealing from Others it is the Duty of every Individual to endeavour to put a Stop to a practice which distresses the Honest and Industrious whose Gardens are Robbed and provisions stolen, by those who sell their Ration; No Provisions are ever to be purchased or received from a Convict on any Consideration whatever; and the Commissary is directed to give 30lbs of flour as a Reward for discovering any Person who may in future be guilty of a Breach of this Order." (State Records Authority of NSW, NRS898 SZ756, p.333)

Port Jackson (1793)

Collins reported the convicts selling clothes and blankets recently received by them to the lascars on board the Chesterfield in March 1793, in return for food and other articles. In this case, the lascars were cold. (David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales [1798], Sydney: A.H. & A.W. Reed, 1975, Vol.1, p.230)

Hillsborough (1798)

At the Cape de Verde Islands, on the outward voyage, the convicts bartered jackets, shirts, handkerchiefs, blankets etc for goats, hogs, coconuts, money etc. Noah noted that had they had liberty to sell their things, they could have fetched a good price, most of them thinking little about the consequences they would later suffer. (William Noah, Voyage to Sydney in the Ship Hillsborough 1798-1799. . ., Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1978, p.28)

In late January 1799, in the tropical heat, shortly after leaving the Cape de Verde Islands, Noah noted that the convicts were buying water from the sailors. (Noah, p.29)

Royal Admiral (1800)

29 September 1800 – The convicts were in much better health but they were complaining of the cold, many of them having lost their bedding and clothing while landed at Rio de Janeiro, having stolen from each other. Several had sold their clothes for the sake of liquor and were nearly naked. (Journal of the Royal Admiral, India Office Records, British Library (hereafter IOR) L/MAR/B/338-I, 29 September 1800)

Sydney (1803)

28 August 1803 – An editorial comment in the Sydney Gazette suggests that while there were still instances of convicts selling their rations for liquor, the government felt the problem was largely under control:

"The General Orders which prohibit the Ration of Prisoners being purchased, or in any manner applied to the purposes of traffic, must be considered both wholesome and necessary. Instances have occurred wherein this Ordinance has been infracted by persons who were less regardful of the common good than of turning into immediate advantage the disputed inclinations of some among the labouring orders, who destitute of every possible resource except a Ration, which they lavished in an hour of debauchery, exposed them to the calamities of want during the remainder of the week. It has sometimes happened, that those persons who by receiving the allowance of prisoners in exchange encouraged the propensity, could not account for so improper, so truly culpable a transaction, upon the principle of being in immediate want of the article received in barter – but launched in petty trade, no fish couple possibly escape the net which avarice had spread within their bosoms.

"Persons who offend in this particular, cannot be permitted to rank but with the criminal, who persevering in a lawless course, draws on himself the weapons of avenging justice. Were such a practice even to pass unnoticed, and the abuse from impunity become established, surely then the unprincipled alone could be induced to traffic in the only means of support, and consequently in the very lives of his fellow-creatures. On the other hand, the act of selling a Ration evinces a depravity in the vender, from which, when reduced to a condition of actual want and necessity, consequences may be expected to result, that may too probably have a fatal termination. In such a case, the man who for a trifling profit has distressed another, and thereby added desperation to his natural rashness and criminal precipitancy, is, morally considered, no less than accessory before the fact, to any crime that may be instigated by a created necessity. Or allowing that no such consequence may immediately follow – then the purchased may probably congratulate himself that he has only to answer to his conscience for being accessory to the starvation of an unthinking unfortunate, by his own consent and importunity. In which case, it is not altogether probable that so humane a bargainist would at the weeks end relieve the tottering creature, were he even gasping in the last stages of a famine, which cleared fifty per cent on the quick retail. However consistent this may be with the general deportment of this class of delinquents, yet it is impossible that they can inwardly reconcile it; for nature has fortunately sown in every breast a discrimination of good from evil; and although habit may diminish, yet it never can wholly eradicate compunction.

"As far as it effects the servants of the Crown individually, these dealers appear very culpable, and equally uncharitable, yet justify themselves upon a preposterous supposition, that if one would not purchase another would: This may possibly be the case, but as no man is held responsable for the crimes of another, there certainly can be no very urgent necessity of adopting his vices, merely because they furnish him with an existing precedent; but when considered as a Public Evil, the Government feels that it must be repressed, and therefore have adopted those measures that cannot sail in subduing so once destructive, but now limited a practice.

"It is to be hoped there are at present but few who thus presume to gnaw the vitals of the labourer. A vulture here and there may lie concealed; but when exposed too late confess the power of the Law." (Sydney Gazette, 28 August 1803, p.2)

September 1803 – Morgan Power was committed to the Battery Gang at George’s Head ‘for purchasing Slops served to the prisoners at Public Labour at Toon-Gabbie’. (Sydney Gazette, 11 September 1803, p.3)

And later that month:

"Mary Bryan, who cohabits with Brian Egan, fraudulently obtained an order for articles from the Store Investments, in the name of John Larkham, Settler at the Field of Mars; applying to Mr Blaxcell [who was in charge of the stores] at the time of issue, she was recognized as having very recently received articles in another name, in answer to which she informed him that Larkham’s wife had requested her to call with the order and receive for her the property therein specified; but he refused to comply with it until Larkham or his wife should make personal application: To surmount this difficulty she prevailed on Catherine Collins, lately arrived in the Rolla, with whom she had an acquaintance, to personate Larkham’s wife, whereby the articles were obtained. This woman having serious cause to be apprehensive for her own safety, on Wednesday last gave information of the fraud, and the parties have been consequently taken into custody. In her confession, made before Thos. Jameson, Esq. she enumerates many of the articles thus criminally obtained, a part of which has been disposed of to divers persons whose names are also in possession of the Magistrates." (Sydney Gazette, 2 October 1803, p.3)

[See also Sydney Gazettes No.32, p.2; No.33, p.2; No.33, p.4; No.34, p.2]

4 March 1804 – Article in the Sydney Gazette:

"His Excellency’s General Order of Thursday will prove lastingly and essentially beneficial to the labouring orders, who are prevented thereby from possibly disposing of the Cloathing issued to them from His Majesty’s Stores, or trucking them away without certain detection; but it may now be hoped, that there scarce exists within the limit of the Colony one single individual, who would unfeelingly become a Purchaser, and for a merely trifling consideration wantonly incur the certain and necessary Penalties attached to so flagrant a breach of duty and humanity. These Penalties, whose design it is to curb the stride of Avarice when it extended to the necessary comforts and the actual wants of man, must produce a grateful sentiment in favour of the Government that not only bountifully supplies those wants, but afterwards kindly interests itself in preventing their misapplication." (Sydney Gazette, 4 March 1804, p.3)

Report on the General Hewitt (1814)

30 April 1814 – Macquarie to the Transport Board. He advised that 34 had died out of the 300 that had been taken on board the ship, and ‘the surviving 266 who arrived, were generally in a weak and sickly state’. This gave rise to the concern that ‘due attention had not been paid to their health and comforts during their long passage, by the Commander and Surgeon’. He advised that he had appointed a commission of inquiry consisting of the three principal medical officers.

". . . altho’ it does not appear from them that criminal neglect can be imputed to those officers such as might account for so great a mortality and sickness, yet it shews that the Convicts were in the habit of selling part of their provisions to Capt. Earle, whose conduct therein has been highly reprehensible. It appears from the evidence brought before the Court of Enquiry that it is a very common practise with the Masters of Convict Ships to purchase Provisions from the Convicts, but that being a very illegal and injurious traffic for those thoughtless and unfortunate persons as well as being contrary to the Rules of the Service, I beg to call your serious attention to it, and to request that you will adopt such measures as may seem to you most adviseable for the preventing the recurrence continuance of this practice it for the future. I beg to suggest further, that great care should be taken not to permit any person labouring under disease or sickness of any kind to be embarked, and the consequence may be naturally expected to be the communication of the Disease to others on so long a voyage – the Surgeon of the General Hewitt has stated that several Persons were embarked on board that Vessel in a very sickly and unfit state for such a Voyage. . ." (State Records Authority of NSW, NRS897 4/1729, pp.381-383)

The Bigge Report (1822)

This continued to be a problem as late as the 1820s – upon arrival, convicts would report that their money or belongings had been stolen by the ship’s officers or crew, who would defend themselves by arguing that the convicts had sold them in the course of the voyage in return for food or drink. This is the relevant section of Bigge’s report:

"It frequently happens that various articles of store, or of wearing apparel furnished by their friends on leaving England, are put on board the ships for the convicts, and according to the evidence of William Hutchinson, the superintendent, they have not been always punctually delivered; and in some cases they have been damaged, or their contents purloined and appropriated by the sailors.

"The communication that necessarily takes place between the convicts and the sailors during the passage, and the disposition that is common to both to dissipate their resources for the sake of some temporary enjoyment, to indulge their passion for gambling, or excite it in others, will render the decision of their complaints very difficult to the magistrates at Sydney.

"It is not desirable, generally, that the convicts should arrive in New South Wales with money or the means of procuring it; and it is still less desirable that their possession of it should be known, except to the surgeon superintendent, the captain and mate of the ship. But in order to prevent the feeling of disappointment or exasperation that the loss of their property must occasion, and to diminish the temptations to gamble for it during the voyage, it would be advisable that a list of all packages allowed to be put on for the convicts should be made out and attested by the captain and mate of each vessel previous to sailing; that they should be kept in a separate and secure place during the passage; and that the captain and mate should be held responsible for their delivery on the arrival of the ship, at Sydney. This arrangement would doubtless exclude access to the packages during the voyage, and interfere perhaps with the object of sending them on board; but to this it is a sufficient answer, that the possession of property leads only to thefts, and consequently to augmented punishment; and that the encumbrance of packages in the prison deck, if left in the ion of the convicts themselves, would be a great obstruction to ventilation and cleanliness." (John Thomas Bigge, Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales, ordered to be printed by the House of Commons, 19 June 1822, House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (448) at pp.2-3)