Monday, January 11, 2016

Convict Chain Gang Rations; Van Diemen’s Land, 1834.

This is my last Tasmania-inspired post, as I leave the state today after my holiday, and am heading home to Brisbane.

Tasmania is named for the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who was the first European to land on its shores. Tasman himself had called the island ‘Anthoonij van Diemensland’, in honour of Anthony van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, and the man who had sent him on the mission to search for the Great South Land. ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ became Tasmania, in honour of Abel Tasman, when it became independent of New South Wales in 1856.

The British set up a military outpost on Van Diemen’s land in 1803, to thwart any attempts by the French to claim it for their own. The island ultimately became home to forty percent of the convicts sent to Australia between the first settlement in 1788 and 1853, when penal transportation was abolished.

The penalty of transportation came with the order of hard labour, and labour hard they certainly did. Many of the males were assigned to chain gangs to build roads, and for this they needed sufficient food for the back-breaking effort required in the days before heavy machinery. The Select Committee on Transportation (1837) made orders as to the ‘Discipline and Control of Convicts employed in the Road Department in Van Diemen’s Land,’ and these were spelled out in a document from Lieut.-Governor Arthur to Mr. Secretary Stanley, dated 19 December 1834:

Men working in the chain and unassignable gangs will receive
the following ration:
1 ½ lb. 12 per cent. bread, or 1 ¼ lb. bread and ½ lb. vegetables,
or 1 lb. bread, ¼ pint oatmeal, and ½ lb. vegetables.
1 lb, fresh or salt meat, or 10 oz. pork.
½ oz. salt
½ oz. soap.

Men in the unassignable gangs will receive the following ration:
1 ½ lb. bread, or 1 ¼ lb. bread and ½ lb. vegetables.
1 lb. meat
¼ oz. salt.
½ oz. soap.
1 oz. sugar.
1 oz. roasted wheat for coffee.

One man will be appointed daily be the superintendent, according to rotation, to act as messman for the gang, and it will be his care to see that the proper weight of rations is served out to the cook.
He will complain to the superintendent if the rations appear to him to be of bad quality.
The inspector of roads will select overseers and watchmen, also a clerk to assist the superintendent, a blacksmith, cook, rough carpenter, cobbler, tailor, messenger and baker for each gang, from among uch men in the employment of the Crown, not under punishment, as the pincipal superintendent may consider eligible.
It will be the duty of the superintendent to take care that these men perform such services as are required of them at the station, and that they do not mis-spend or mis-appropriae their time or labour.

Some convicts were luckier, and were assigned as servants to officials and free settlers. Their allowance too, was regulated:

Authorized Scale of Rations to Assigned Servants.
Government Notice, November 4, 1834.
1 lb. fresh meat.
1 ½ lb. bread and 1 lb. of vegetables, or
1 lb. bread and 2 lbs. vegetables.
1 oz. sugar, and 1 oz. roasted wheat for coffee, or
2 pints of milk, or
2 pints of table beer.
10 oz. of salt pork, or 1 lb. of other salt meat, not to be
Issued oftener than twice a week in lieu of fresh meat.

There are no recipes extant for convicts’ bread that I am aware of. It was assumed that the basic method was so well known that detailed instructions were not necessary. I do not know, for certain, what is meant by ‘12 per cent. bread’, but suspect it referred to the proportion of good wheat flour, the balance being made up of lesser grains, beans, oatmeal and the like. I hope one of you can enlighten me.

As the recipe for the day, I give you a little something from the first genuine Australian cookery book. It is called The English and Australian Cookery Book, and was published in 1864 by ‘An Australian Aristologist’ – the pseudonym of Edwin Abbott. Abbott was Sydney-born but moved to Hobart with his family at the age of about fourteen. He became a newspaper editor and publisher, and eventually, an elected member of the first State Parliament. The book includes recipes for such things as “pan jam” kangaroo tails roast in the ashes) and “slippery bob” (kangaroo brains fried in emu fat) alongside instructions for cooking ortolans and peacock, and for making trifle and punch. It was decidedly not a commercial success.

Camp Ketchup.

Take of old beer two quarts; white wine, one quart; anchovies, four ounces. Mix, and heat to the boiling point; remove it from the fire, and add three ounces of peeled shallot, half an ounce of mace, nutmegs, ginger, and black pepper. Macerate for fourteen days, and strain.


Dan said...

This is a quite interesting post on rationing by position; thank you for writing it.

Regarding the 12 percent bread, I'm curious too. I'm no baker and like you I've no idea to what it really refers.

I believe that bakers measure by weight, and from that one could derive percentages in order to scale up or down dough to fit one's needs. I've heard of a language bakers use called a "bakers percentage" though I don't know when it was created.

Here's an incomprehensibly complex (to me) article on bakers percentage:

Here's a link suggesting 12 percent sugar in a modern recipe:!page=product&id=EF487FDA-E105-11DF-A102-FEFD45A4D471

And here is something perhaps better: a 12% gluten content, referring to today's all-purpose flower:
Did they deal with gluten back in the old days?

Here is something from those artisan bakers, who are going back in time to make bread, or something. They do explore grains unpopular these days (at least in the USA). The formalize two- and multi-grain percentages, so your supposition about 12% being a percentage of a type of flour does seem to fit, esp. if cost was a concern feeding -- well -- work gangs, without starving them.

As an alternative idea, here's a link to a book that might suggest moisture in bread as opposed to types of flour. This book notes the different percentages of water that bread will contain.

Could it be that dryer bread (at 12%) was served in rationing? Though one can't imagine that water was so expensive as to be rationed in bread.

I bet your thought that the 12% relates to a kind of commonly-understood percentage of flour is right, and it's not commonly-understood anymore

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your post, thanks! My 3x great grandfather was a convict in New South Wales, and later the overseer of a road gang, and he had to deal with suppliers of less-than-good rations. As you say, the men needed the food to be able to do the hard labour.
As for 12% bread, could that be a way of referring to 'strong' flour, which is about 12% protein? Strong flour is used to bake bread which rises, as opposed to flat, or unleavened, bread, which doesn't need to be left to rise and is easier to make when you're on the road - like damper, perhaps?