Why was the commissariat central to the early colonial economy in Australia? In order to explain why the commissariat was central to the early colonial economy it may serve first to consider the purpose of the new colony and the situation the new colonists found themselves in; what the commissariat was; what role it played in the economy of New South Wales, and what contribution the commissariat made to the success of the new colony. In 1788, after considering locations elsewhere in the world, the British established a penal colony in Australia.
1 While the initial reasons for doing so have been debated widely by historians, it is apparent that the primary use to which the colony was put to at its inception was as a penal settlement. Overcrowding of British jails had put increasing amounts of pressure on the British government2, and the inability to find an alternative location saw Governor Phillip establish the colony of New South Wales. The great distance between Australia and Britain meant that New South Wales was rather isolated from its parent country, and so, by necessity, was required to be self contained and largely self-reliant.
The First Fleet journeyed to a strange and inhospitable environment to establish a colony where nothing had been prepared for their arrival. The limited resources available required management and control as, in that isolation that they found themselves in, the colonists relied upon their meagre supply for their very survival. It could well be imagined how the isolation of the colony would have weighed heavily on the minds of the colonists as there was no rapid assistance available from the mother country in the event of disaster.
This sense remoteness perhaps underlined the importance of exercising control over resources; the heavy burden of isolation reinforcing the independent resolve of the colonists. 3 The function of control over resources was provided by the New South Wales commissariat, an arm of the government which was modelled on the organisation which, at that time, fulfilled a logistical function for the British army. 4 At the beginning of colonisation the commissariat, led by Andrew Miller, fulfilled the basic function of organising the provisions and stores which the officers, soldiers and convicts needed to survive.
5 This basic provisioning function was surpassed, however, as the penal colony and its economy expanded and administration became more complex. 6 Stores receipts from the commissariat soon became a currency within the colony as, due to the self-sufficient vision the British government had, New South Wales had not been provided with a currency. 7 In an undeveloped country, as New South Wales was in its early years, the consequence of poor supply of capital (money) is that the inhabitants are more at risk from the vagaries of nature, as they have no insurance against harsh circumstances.
8 While an economist may debate the difference between money and capital, in New South Wales at this time there were no opportunities for the colonists to gain surplus value from any assets they owned. Thus, the colonists needed a form of money to engage in commerce and the route to money started with the collection of stores receipts. The value of store receipts was that they could be exchanged for a treasury note, which was payable in sterling.
The only way imported manufactured goods could be obtained (the purchasing of cargoes off ships) was by sterling, and the only way to obtain sterling was via this store receipts/treasury note system or by paymaster’s bills as paid to civil and military officers. 9 The army officers were not only expected to engage in commerce; they had to, as an officer was unable to live on his wage at that time. 10 Here lay the crux of the economic system of New South Wales, as the commissariat purchased agricultural produce from the settlers and the earnings that were made from this could be converted into foreign exchange (treasury bills).
Access to these Treasury bills in turn provided the opportunity to enter into the trade of imports which was a very profitable venture. 11 The commissariat provided access to store receipts which was the first step for anyone other than an officer to become involved in commerce, as they provided anyone with the ability to accumulate enough of them enter into the type of business usually reserved for a gentleman (the civil and military officers, for example), effectively by-passing the traditional British class system.