Ship’s Biscuits: Fuelling Empire, if not Diplomacy

If Britain’s naval infrastructure was the vehicle of its expansion during the 18th and 19th centuries, then ship’s biscuits were the fuel. The empire’s global infiltration, so catastrophic for First Nations peoples across Australia, the Pacific, Africa and North America, would not have been possible without the sustenance afforded by this most basic of seagoing staples. The humble biscuit, later known as hard tack, and which was ‘always known as bread at sea,’[1] never masqueraded as an object of culinary enjoyment, and did not even have the pretence of nutrition. This most basic ration, issued to sailors and soldiers across thousands of years and multiple empires, existed to ward off starvation. It was part of the suite of necessity, according to Janet McDonald:

…restricted by what was currently available and would keep in good condition for a long time, and with some regional variations, this came down to biscuit, salt or dried meat or fish, cereals, dried pulses and a little cheese and butter or oil with fresh food when in port.[2]

The march of empires, fed by ship’s biscuits or a close equivalent, are relatively uniform. The Roman version of biscuit or hard tack was Bucellatum, and sources indicate it was ‘regular practice for the legionaries to carry sufficient rations for about 17 days.’[3] Their options were austere by design: the Augustan histories note that Avidius Cassius ‘forbade the soldiers…to carry anything when on the march save lard and biscuit and vinegar,’[4] and Pescennius Niger ‘forbade pastrycooks to follow expeditions, ordering both soldiers and all others to content themselves with biscuit.’[5] In the 16th century, the Ottoman empire staple was Peksimet, a double-baked variety of bread or rusk almost identical manufacture to ship’s biscuits.[6] In preparation for Spanish Armada, a small industry evolved in Italy, where flour and cheaper production was available, and biscuits were ‘baked six months ahead of need to ensure the supply.’[7] Paximadia, a barley and sometimes wheat flour variation widely used in Southern Italy, Crete and Greek Islands, was a variant popular amongst Mediterranean sailors, and its influence as a popular comfort food is still evident today in hard biscuit varieties.[8] Cromwellian soldiers also marched on biscuit, and an officer claimed in 1650,

Nothing is more certain than this, that in the late wars both Scotland and Ireland were conquered by timely provisions of Cheshire cheese and biscuit.[9]

The rations afforded each soldier or sailor were also remarkably uniform across time and place. When Samuel Pepys codified the royal navy’s daily and weekly rations in the 1730s, one pound of biscuit and one gallon of beer per day was the standard, augmented through the course of a week with additional salt beef or pork, dried peel and other items.[10] According to David Fictum, one pound of biscuits consisted of three to five biscuits, which one period observer described as plate-sized. This was comparable to the daily rations of the highly mobile Roman Empire, and not dissimilar to various Crusade-era provisioning. Two famous 1797 British port mutinies were, postulated Anthony Brown, caused not by a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government, but an issue of ship’s biscuits.[11] They were also amongst essential staples carried by travellers on American frontier in 19th century.[12]

Biscuits did not always keep starvation at bay, and the historical record is replete with biscuit-related anecdotes of want and fights for survival. In 1520, after nearly four months at sea, Ferdinand Magellan recorded,

having in this time consumed all their Bisket and other Victuals, they fell into such necessitie that they were inforced to eate the powder that remayned thereof, being now full of Wormes and stinking like Pisse, by reason of the salt water.[13]

The biscuit dust or powder referred to by Magellan was often the very last resort – the remains at the bottom of barrels or bags of biscuits spoiled by weevils, maggots or salt water rot. Similarly, when Captain William Bligh was deposed by the Bounty mutineers into a longboat with 150lb of bread (undoubtedly biscuit), he remarked that already ‘a great deal was damaged and rotten; this nevertheless we were glad to keep for use.’[14] His party agreed to live on one ounce per day – a fraction of the regular allowance – and a small amount of water until they reached Timor, 1200 leagues away.[15] In desperate circumstances, even rotten or infested biscuit enabled survival.

Wheat flour was the essential component of British ship’s biscuits, and those made with other flours were deemed not suitable providing for long sea voyages. The introduction of other agents such as lard risked spoilage, and undermined the structural integrity of the rock-hard slab. Salt was not a necessity for sea-based voyages. The double-baking process was vital to achieve the moistureless, rock-hard consistency, and similar baking methods were evident from the Roman, Ottoman and Spanish Empires through to the 19th century, when the industrial revolution enabled production of much higher quantities. Biscuits were expected to keep for a minimum of six months, and were often issued years after their first production. In a startling testament to the longevity of this bread of the sea, a ship’s biscuit from the Battle of Trafalgar was auctioned in 2018, and the Danish maritime Museum at Kronborg castle boasts an intact biscuit dating from 1852. Not to be outdone, the British Maritime Museum holds an engraved, intact biscuit from 1784.

Yet the ship’s biscuit, despite its heroic status as a substance to ward off starvation, was also almost universally denigrated. At its best – when manufactured and stored properly – it had no taste at all, being usually just flour and water. Once stale or spoiled, as Magellan so eloquently noted, it became repugnant. Often inedible without being softened by water, soup or gravy, and undoubtedly responsible for as much dental damage as the effects of scurvy,  biscuits were always a necessary evil more than a foodstuff to be affectionate towards. They were for survival, not enjoyment. This begs the question, then, why were they so often shared with First Nations peoples if the intent was to establish amicable relations?

Spitting the biscuit

If there is one constant thread running between First Nations people’s reactions to their initial encounters with ship’s biscuits or bread, it is spitting. In story after story, the biscuits were spat out. Sometimes this was done politely, as in the case on October 1798, when 24 year old Matthew Flinders and his party came ashore at Twofold Bay, and he was approached by a solitary, senior Yuin warrior who displayed an air of nonchalance. Flinders wrote that he,

…gave him some biscuit; and he in return presented us with a piece of gristly fat, probably of whale. This I tasted; but watching an opportunity to spit it out when he should not be looking. I perceived him doing precisely the same thing with our biscuit, whose taste was probably no more agreeable to him, than his whale was to me.[16]

Here, both parties looked for an opportunity to be rid of the other’s offending food offering without insulting the other. Many times this was done out of the range of sight: Europeans would simply find the bread, clothes or other ‘gifts’ discarded. Often, the act was unceremonious, and sometimes included performative hurling the offending morsel to a distance.

One European who features in a number of these rejection stories is then-Lieutenant James Cook. His voyage north along the east coast of Australia in 1770, charting the coast and eventually claiming possession for England, is well remembered amongst the First Nations peoples with whom he had contact. In particular, the Tharawal people, whose land is to the south of current-day Sydney, have a number of Cook stories. As told to non-Indigenous poet Roland Robinson by Mr M,[17] the story of Tharawal woman Thungeei’s encounter with Cook at Bateman’s Bay contains a number of the regular tropes:

He landed on the shore of the river,

the other side of where the

church is now.

When he landed he gave the Kurris clothes,

an' those big sea-biscuits.

Terrible hard biscuits they was.

When they were pullin' away to go back

to the ships, these wild Kurris

were runnin' out of the scrub.

They'd stripped right off again.

They were throwin' the clothes and biscuits

back at Captain Cook

as his men were pullin' away in the boat.[18]

Another Tharawal recollection is marked by a series of food encounters. Similar to the Yuin whose lands were much more southerly, and who also initially perceived the Endeavour as some kind of large bird, the Tharawal saw the two ships of Cook’s expedition to be ‘great birds’, and the men ‘in their clothes, and the officers and marines in their cocked hats, for strange animals’.[19] As they climbed the masts, they looked unsurprisingly like possums. When Cook’s party came ashore, a series of exchanges were attempted:

Cook took out a bottle and drank, and gave them it to drink. They spat it out – salt water! It was their first taste of rum. Cook took some biscuit and ate it, and gave them some. They spat it out – something dry! It was old ship-biscuit. Then Cook took a tomahawk and chopped a tree. They liked the tomahawk and took it.[20]

On the other side of the continent, on the West Australian Coast, the Jaburara people whose land includes current-day Dampier had probably had long contact with outsiders. Dutch representatives of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) had been regular visitors, sometimes unwillingly due to shipwrecks, from the 17th century. There is also the possibility that non-European arrivals, from Southeast Asia or even as far as eastern Africa, visited earlier.[21] So when explorer and surveyor Phillip Parker King met a Jaburara man in 1820, the humble biscuit offered by King made very little impact. According to King, as soon as he tasted it, he spat it out.[22]

The act of spitting out the newcomers’ bread is not confined to the Australian experience. In Canada, Dickason and Newbigging observe that, similar to the mutual revulsion experienced by the Yuin man who exchanged food with Matthew Flinders, ‘Neither side was impressed with the other’s food.’[23] Samuel Hearn observed Inuit dislike of the mid-18th century,

…for though some of them would put a bit of it into their mouths, they soon spit it out again with evident marks of dislike; so that they had no greater relish for our food than we had for theirs.[24]

As recently as the 1940s, spitting remained a common First Nations reaction to bread in Australia. Phillip Clark discusses an account from an elderly Mardu man whose family ‘came out’ of the Western desert in the 1940s and first encounetered Europeans:

At this time, in addition to clothes, they were given white flour rations, which they cooked as damper on the open fire. The result tasted so unpleasantly sweet to the […] family, in comparison to their own ground seed sources, that they spat it out.[25]

Sometimes the bread or biscuit was thrown away, untasted. In the early 1960s linguist Robert Dixon recorded a complex and evocative Captain Cook encounter story from the Dyirbal people on the northern Queensland coast. After offering the people a smoke, which they did not accept, Cook then boiled a billy of tea, which they rejected as dirty water. Cook then cooked a Johnnycake (which for the purposes of this paper I interpret as biscuit or damper) and offered it to them. Mrs G, who recounted the story to Dixon, said,

they looked to the Girramaygan like roast wila, cakes of brown walnut, one of their staple foods… But the Johnny-cake didn't measure up to its looks. It smelt stale — quite unlike walnut — and they threw it away, untasted.[26]

Further north in Queensland, in June 1770 Cook interacted with a group of Guugu-Yimithirr warriors who came aboard the Endeavour to retrieve stolen turtles. This unauthorised taking of the turtles was undoubtedly a breach of protocol, unacknowledged or invisible to Cook, who wrote, ‘At this time we happened to have no victuals dressed, but I offered one of them some biscuit, which he snatched and threw overboard with great disdain.’[27] The British were not alone in experiencing First Nations rejections of bread and biscuit; Nicolas Baudin wrote of his Tasmanian encounters that, ‘they were likewise very little interested in our biscuit and fresh bread. At the beginning, they took it and mimicked us pretending to eat it, but as soon as one left them, they threw it away.[28]

This rejection of unpalatable or suspicious foodstuffs continued into the colonial era. On the southern side of the continent, near present-day Adelaide, the Kaurna people were known for surreptitious disposal. An 1859 observer noted, ‘if some bread and meat were given to them they would consume the meat, but on getting a little distance from the house,  after smelling the bread, they would deliberately throw it away.’[29] This may well have been due to well-founded suspicions about poisoned flour. As Peggy Brock noted, at first the Arrernte people of Central Australia rejected the mutton and flour they were given, feeding it to the dogs to see if it was poisoned.[30] Oral accounts by Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people reflect similar concerns.

There are also incidents of trade. On the West Australian coast, Nyungar peoples near the new colony at Perth in 1834 shared old stories of white people living in tents and trading biscuits with Nhanda people, to the north. These white people – who predated British colonisers by over a century – were possibly the survivors of the Zuytdorp, which was lost in 1711.[31] Current thinking is that  survivors of the Zuytdorp may have been absorbed into the Nhanda community. The Nhanda’s neighbours to the north, the Malgana, were said to have traded spears and shields for biscuit with survivors of the Mercury shipwreck in 1833-4: however, this seems to be an unequal exchange and goes against most trends, as spears and shields were of much higher value than biscuits: the trade most likely also involved coins from the wreck, which were also brought to Perth by Indigenous people at this time.[32]

As an item of exchange or gift, especially in a first contact situation, the ship’s biscuit seems a curious choice, compared to tools and other items such as glass and mirrors which could be expertly refashioned to more useful purposes. Sometimes it was out of necessity, such as the encounter between Flinders and the unnamed Yuin man, where they exchanged what they happened to be carrying – for Flinders, the biscuit, and the Yuin man, the whale meat. In other situations, the gifting of such an inferior item as a rock-hard and tasteless ship’s biscuit or unpalatable bread would, justifiably, be read as an insult. A performative rejection, such as when the Guugu-Yimithirr man threw the biscuit overboard when James Cook refused to return their turtles, is clear defiance. As Jeremy Beckett wrote of first encounter stories generally, gifts were not refused lightly:

…rejecting gifts from outsiders, suggests something more important is being talked about… If the refusal was not tantamount to a declaration of war, it was certainly a refusal to make friends, and to resist what Bourdieu called the gift’s ‘symbolic violence’.[33]

Even a subtle refusal could be deemed an act of resistance. The surreptitious discarding of a piece of clothing or quiet disposal of bread or biscuit is a rejection, and arguably amounts to the kinds of smaller, less obvious acts of disguised rebellion discussed by James C Scott in his influential Weapons of the Weak, describing ‘… ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth.’[34]

Far from the Eurocentric and racist stereotypes of First Nations peoples being innocently beguiled by a few beads and mirrors, the accounts of reactions to ship’s biscuits and bread speak to the agency of the receivers, and their understanding of the value of what has been gifted. As archaeologist Isabel McBryde wrote in relation to a Tharawal encounter narrative about rejection of ‘terrible hard biscuit’, ‘The comment on the quality of the gift itself may convey a message about the colonial experience in terms of Aboriginal traditions of appropriate reciprocity.’[35] The reception of ship’s biscuits in first contact and later in early frontier situations shows a clear trajectory to later moral campaigning, and the claim on what historian Richard Broome called ‘right behavior’: that is, the application of ‘customary understandings about good conduct’ in the client–patron relationship which developed between First Nations people and colonial agents.[36] By any measure – as a foodstuff, a gift, or some kind of compensation for dispossession from traditional economies – ship’s biscuits were substandard.

Leonie Stevens

[1] Layinka Swinburne 2007, ‘Dancing with the Mermaids: Ship’s Biscuit and Portable Soup’, in Harlan Walker ed, Food on the move: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Devon: Prospect Books, 309.

[2] Janet Macdonald 2004, Feeding Nelson’s navy: The true story of food at sea in the Georgian era, London: Chatham Publishing, 149.

[3] Carol A. Dery, ‘Food and the Roman Army: Travel, Transport, and Transmission’, in Harlan Walker ed, Food on the move: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Devon: Prospect Books, 85.

[4] David Magie (trans) 1921, The Scriptores historiae augustae with an English translation, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 243.

[5] Magie, Scriptores historiae augustae, 453.

[6] Maria Kaneva-Johnson 2007, ‘The gardeners of Europe’, in Harlan Walker ed, Food on the move: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Devon: Prospect Books, 195.

[7] Swinburne, ‘Dancing with the Mermaids’, 310.

[8] Aglaia Kremezi 2007, ‘Paximadia (Barley Biscuits): Food for Sailors, Travellers and Poor Islanders’, in Harlan Walker ed, Food on the move: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Devon: Prospect Books, 209-10.

[9] Swinburne, Dancing with Mermaids, 317, citing C. H. Firth 1992, Cromwell's Army, 3rd edition, 223.

[10] Great Britain Royal Navy, and Gale 1731, Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea, London: Printed in the Year 1731, Gale Eighteenth Century Collections Online, 60.

[11] Anthony G. Brown 2006, ‘The Nore Mutiny—Sedition Or Ships' Biscuits? A Reappraisal’, The Mariner's Mirror, 92:1, 74.

[12] Mary Wallace Kelsey 2007, ‘Food for the Lewis and Clark Expedition: Exploring North West America, 1804-6’, in Harlan Walker ed, Food on the move: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Devon: Prospect Books, 201.

[13] Cited in Swinburne, ‘Dancing with Mermaids’, 313.

[14] William Bligh 1790, A Narrative of the Mutiny on Board His Majesty's Ship Bounty; and the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew, in the Ship's Boat, From Tofoa, One of the Friendly Islands, To Timor, a Dutch Settlement in the East Indies, London: George Nicol, 25.

[15] Bligh, A Narrative of the Mutiny, 22.

[16] Matthew Flinders 1814, A voyage to Terra Australis : undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country, and prosecuted in the years 1801, 1802 and 1803, in His Majesty's ship the Investigator, and subsequently in the armed vessel Porpoise and Cumberland schooner: with an account of the shipwreck of the Porpoise, arrival of the Cumberland at Mauritius, and imprisonment of the commander during six years and a half in that island, London: G & W Nicol, Booksellers to his Majesty, Pall-Mall, cxl.

[17] This paper follows general protocols of not naming deceased First Nations individuals.

[18] Roland Robinson 1997, ‘Captain Cook’, in Valerie Chapman and Peter Read eds, Terrible Hard Biscuits : A Reader in Aboriginal History, Taylor & Francis Group, xvii.

[19] W. B. Ullathorne 1891, The Autobiography of Archbishop Ullathorne, Burns & Oates, London, 73-4.

[20] Ullathorne, Autobiography, 73-4.

[21] Numerous stories and evidence are currently under investigation by the Global Encounters and First Nations Peoples project.

[22] Phillip Parker King 1827, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia: Performed between the Years 1818 and 1822, London: John Murray, 39-47.

[23] Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging 2015, A concise history of Canada's First Nations, Second edition, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press, 82.

[24] Samuel Hearne 1911, A journey from Prince of Wales's fort in Hudson Bay to the northern ocean, in the years 1769, 1770, 1771, and 1772, Toronto: Champlain Society, 185.

[25] Phillip A. Clarke 2011, Aboriginal People and Their Plants. 2nd ed. Kenthurst, N.S.W.: Rosenberg, 135.

[26] Robert M. Dixon 1983, Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1-3.

[27] Samuel Bennett 1865, The History of Australian discovery and colonisation, Sydney: Hanson and Bennett, 87.

[28] Nicholas Baudin 1974, The journal of post Captain Nicolas Baudin, Commander-in-Chief of the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, assigned by order of the government to a voyage of discovery, Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 345.

[29] Cited in Clarke, Aboriginal People and Their Plants, 135, quoting Bunce 1859, 113.

[30] Peggy Brock 2008, ‘Two-way food: bush tucker and whitefella's food’, Journal of Australian Studies, 32:1, 20.

[32] Phillip Playford 1996, Carpet of silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp, Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 213.

[33] Jeremy Beckett 1994, ‘Aboriginal Histories, Aboriginal Myths: An Introduction’, Oceania 65:2, 108.

[34] James C. Scott 1985, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, New Haven: Yale University Press, 29.

[35] Isabel McBryde 1997, ‘Perspectives of the Past: An Introduction’, in Valerie Chapman and Peter Read eds, Terrible Hard Biscuits: A Reader in Aboriginal History, Taylor & Francis Group, 11.

[36] Richard Broome 2006,‘There Were Vegetables Every Year Mr Green Was Here’, History Australia, 3:2, 1-16.