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Smallpox Epidemic




Many authors, writing about the deadly smallpox epidemic which swept through the Aboriginal population of the Sydney Cove area from April 1789, have long linked the source of the plague to the arrigal of the white settlers under Governor Phillip.  Robert Hughes, in his book, THE FATAL SHORE, wrote that: "Cholera and influenza germs (sic) from the ships began the work" (of destroying the Aborigines).  Noel Butlin, in his book, OURORIGINAL AGRESSION, went even further, suggesting that it was: "likely that the infection of the Aborigines was a deliberate extermination act".

More recently, in publicity for its otherwise excellent TO MAKE OPEN exhibition, the Museu of Sydney on the Site of First Government House claimed tha the local Cadigal people had: "taken the full brunt of colonisation, including the smallpox epidemic."  Bruce James, in his review of the exhibitions (September 9th 1999), wrote that the "unwitting white settlers had introduced a government house and a smallpox epidemic - neither beautiful." and that the disease had "arrived in cargo-loades of metal hasps, hankerchiefs and English civilisation."

All of which is highly emotive and written from the politically correct point of view, which holds that all the evils of the past 200 years can be laid solely at the feet of the British "invaders".  It also happens to be completely untrue. Smallpox was completely unknown in Sydney at that time, and its sudden appearance among the Aboriginal tribes came as a total surprise to the surgeons of the small isolated colony.  So where did it come from? The MEDICAL HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA bluntly states that the origin of this: "extraordinary calamity ... is a condundrum that historians tend to solve by intuition and bias"  and goes on to praise Professor Alan Frost's 1994 book, BOTANY BAY MIRAGES, as presenting: "the most judicious survey of this phenomenon the the most reasonable and carefully reasoned explanation of the disease's origin.  It provides much of the information for our article, and we can thoroughly recommend the entire volume to our readers.


In early April 1789, boating parties from Sydney Cove began to encounter bodies of Aborigines "in all the coves and inlets of the habour."  On April 15th, searchers accompaniedby Arabanoo, Governor Phillip's Aboriginal confidante, found an afflicted man and his son alive, "covered ... from head to foot" with smallpoxo pustules, beside a dead girl.  Arabanoo dug a grave in the sand for her, and encouraged the other two to allow themselves to be brought in to the settlement, where Chief Surgeon John White, following standard medical proocedures, quarantined them and did all that was humanly possible to alleviate their suffering.  Towards the end of April, another man and a small girl "in a most deplorable state of wretchedness from the smallpox" were also found and brought in.  Both of the men subsequently died, but the children survived, and by May 8th, the day on which Captain John Hunter returned to the colony aboard the SIRIUS (having been sent to the Cape of Good Hope to purchas supplies for the struggling colony), they had virtually recovered.  Hunter subsequently noted that:  "it was truly shocking to go round the coves of the harbour, which were formerly so frequented by the naties; where, in the caves of the rocks, which used to shelter whole families in bad weather, were now to be seen men, women, and children lying dead."


Familiar as the colony's surgeons would have been with smallpox, they were at a loss to explain the source of the current outbreak among the Aborigines.  As Watkin Tench wrote: "how a disease, to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers, could at once have introduced itself and have spread so widely, seemed inexplicable."

None of the approximately 1,000 European
inhabitants of
Sydney contracted the disease either before or after the epidemic, although "a seaman belonging to the SUPPLY, Joseph Jeffries, a native (Indian) of North America, having been to see (the Aboriginal children), was seized with it, and soon after died".  He was the only non-Aboriginal to become infected with the virus.  Sadly, Arabanoo also fell victim to the disease, and died on May 18th.  Governor Phillip was deeply saddened by the loss of his good friend, and had him buried in the grounds of the First Government House.  His remains probably still lie somewhere beneath the streets of Sydney today.


The smallpox epidemic continued until at least 1790 and, by the time it had run its course, an estimated 50% of the Aboriginal population between Botany Bay in the south and the Hawkesbury in the north had died.  How many more died outside the settled areas is unknown.  It was without doubt one of the most disastrous episodes in Australian history, the blame for which it has been all too easy to lay upon the shoulders of the First Fleet settlers and convicts.  But is this reproach really true?  And if not, what other source could there possibly have been for the pestilence?  Before we discuss this, we should perhaps first examine the nature of smallpox, the better to understand what is and is not possible.


Smallpox is an epidemic disease, caused by a virus (not a germ, as Robert Hughes avers), which is passed on by close contact with infected individuals.  After contracting the disease, the typical patient initially feels no illness while the virus undergoes an incubation phase of 10 to 14 days.  After this period, he suffers 2 to 5 days of high fever, headaches and muscular pain, while a rash appears and quickly spreads over his entire face and body.  This develops into scores of fluid-filled pustules, which progressively begin to dry and form scabs some 8 days after the appearance of the rash. After another 4 days, the scabs begin to fall off, leaving the characteristic pock-marks on the face and body of the patient. Assuming that he has survived, the patient is no longer infectious by the 17th day from the appearance of the rash and, more importantly, he is now immune to any further occurrence of the disease.


By its nature, smallpox relies on a continual cycle of infection and transmission to survive; once it runs out of fresh victims, the epidemic 'burns itself out' and does not recur.  The disease cannot be carried indefinitely by individuals; as Frost notes: "either a person has smallpox or he hasn't; either a person is infectious or she isn't " Under certain conditions, however, the virus can remain active in the patient's dried pustular fluids, soiled linen and discarded scabs for some time after.



In any attempt to discover the likely cause of the great epidemic of 1789, four possible alternatives present themselves:

(a)       that smallpox was unwittingly brought to Australia by infected members of the First Fleet, or by other European visitors,

(b)       that it was deliberately introducedby Governor Phillip or his officers as part of a secret plan to eradicate the Aborigines,

(c)       that the diseas already existed in Australia before the arrival of the First Fleet,

(d)       that it was introduced from elsewhere.  We shall examine each possibility in turn.





This is the standard explanation for the appearance of smallpox in Australia, but upon examination of all the facts, it is clearly untenable.

As a matter of custom and common sense, the British authorities excluded any person exhibiting smallpox symptoms from boarding the vessels of the First Fleet.  Not only would the consequences of any such epidemic in a confined shipboard environment have been disastrous, it would also have caused the First Fleet to be "refused entrance in a foreign port", as Phillip warned before the voyage began.  He later stated that smallpox: "never appeared on board any of the ships on our passage", whilst the harbour authorities at Rio de Janiero and Cape Town, where the First Fleet called en route, made no report on the existence of the disease aboard any of its vessels.  Thus, whilst many members of the First Fleet may well have been exposed to smallpox at some time in their lives before the voyage, it is certain that none of them was infectious when they set sail from Portsmouth in May 1787, or had become so when they landed in Australia over eight months later.


The same situation applied aboard the vessels of the La Perouse expedition, which arrived shortly after the First Fleet. After the departure of the French, the small settlement had absolutely no other contact with the outside world for well over a year, and at no time did smallpox make its appearance.  This is confirmed by the fact that none of the 40 children born during the voyage or in the intervening months after settlement (by definition, the most vulnerable group of all) exhibited any trace of the disease.  And, as previously related, by the time Captain Hunter returned in May 1789 from the Cape of Good Hope, the epidemic was already raging among the Aborigines; thus it was impossible for it to have arrived with him on the SIRIUS.  It would seem then, that on the basis of the historical and medical facts alone, we can immediately rule out the "accidental epidemic" theory.




Perhaps one of the most outrageous suggestions to have been made about this entire sad episode in our history is the accusation that Phillip or his officers deliberately let the affliction loose amongst the Aboriginal population in order to wipe it out. There is absolutely no documentary or historical evidence to support such a claim – indeed, the known integrity of Philip and his officers was such as to absolutely preclude them from even considering such a plan.  In addition, it would have been in direct contravention of Phillip's specific instructions from King George III to establish friendly relations with the Aborigines for him to have done so.  Nevertheless, we should examine even the slightest possibility that it might indeed be true.

One scenario claims that government officials or settlers, either wittingly or unwittingly, gave infected clothing and blankets to the Aborigines.  The insinuation that this was deliberate seems to fall squarely into the category of urban myth, since exactly the same accusations have been levelled at American settlers and their alleged attempts to eliminate the local Indian population.

This theory is based on the fact that, under certain circumstances, the smallpox virus was known to be able to survive in dried secretions (presumably on soiled linen) and scabs for some time after the disease had abated in its human host.  The infectious nature of the dormant virus declines rapidly with time; indeed recent experiments indicate that it would have been unlikely to survive for more than a year, even when stored at the optimal temperature of around 20 to 25 degrees C.

Since there was no smallpox in the colony, any infected materials would thus have had to have been procured in England before the Fleet sailed in May 1787 and, even ignoring the logistic nightmare of transporting and storing such lethal material in the first place, the virus would have had to survive the heat and humidity of a tropical sea voyage and two subsequent hot Sydney summers (where recorded temperatures frequently exceeded 30 degrees C), before it was allegedly let loose upon the Aborigines. The likelihood of the virus still being viable after almost two years under these conditions is extremely doubtful; but even if was, why the supposed plotters would have chosen to wait fifteen months after the First Fleet's arrival in Australia before unleashing their supposed "secret weapon" defies explanation.  We can safely dismiss
the importation and subsequent use of infected items of any kind (including Bruce James' emotive "metal hasps and handkerchiefs') as being wholly fanciful, unsupported by any evidence, and totally unworkable in practice.


Nevertheless, some smallpox matter, in the form of dried scabs, was brought out from England, in the medicine cabinet bottles of the First Fleet surgeons.  In the era before Edward Jenner introduced vaccination with cowpox as a safe defence against smallpox, some doctors used such variolous material to initiate a (hopefully) mild attack of smallpox in a child in order to induce the desired immunity to the disease.  It was a dangerous and haphazard procedure, but none of the 40 children in the colony was old enough at the time for the treatment to have been administered.

It is extremely unlikely that outsiders would have had access to the precious medicine cabinets, and it strains credulity to believe that the surgeons would have first cold-heartedly released the virus, and then afterwards tended the afflicted Aborigines and adopted the children orphaned by the epidemic, as they are recorded as having done.  In any case, the previously noted restrictions of time and storage would also have applied to the bottled material, and it is highly likely that it was virtually inert by April 1789.  The totally unfounded "germ warfare" theory simply does not stack up with the known facts, and may also be safely discarded.


At first glance, the suggestion that smallpox had appeared in Australia before the arrival of the First Fleet seems improbable.  All the chroniclers of the time agreed that the bodies and faces of the local Aborigines showed no sign of the ravages of smallpox, which explains their lack of resistance to the disease when it arrived.  But the diarists also recorded the interesting observation that the natives had a name for the disease - "gal­ga-la; a circumstance" wrote Collins, "which seemed to indicate a preacqaintance with it."  If smallpox was previously unknown to the Aborigines, how could it have had a name?  Might it be that this was a folk memory of previous epidemics that had decimated earlier generations?

It is generally agreed that smallpox needs a concentrated population of some 200,000 individuals in order to sustain itself indefinitely; any less will eventually cause the disease to "burn itself out" for lack of fresh contacts.  It is hard to arrive at an accurate estimate of Australia's pre-European Aboriginal population; totals of between 300,000 to 1,500,000 have been suggested.  A median figure of approximately 750,000 individuals, dispersed across the continent, is probably a realistic compromise. Such a number, even though thinly spread, would probably have been sufficient to sustain one or even more smallpox epidemics, which, over time, would gradually spread, reduce the population below the aggregate needed to sustain continual infection, and then die out.

The survivors, now immune to further infection, would then have children who would show no bodily signs of their parents' illness, and who would be susceptible to further outbreaks.  They would then gradually rebuild the population to the point where another epidemic would be sustainable, and the whole cycle would begin again.  But to be tenable, this theory requires a continual introduction of the disease from sources outside Australia.  Where could it have come from?


From the early 1700s, long before European settlement, the north coast of Australia, from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Kimberleys, was regularly visited by Macassan fishermen, seeking the beche-de-mer, or sea-slug, for the Chinese market.  Following the seasonal winds, up to 60 praus with perhaps 1,000 fishermen would leave Macasssar in the Southern Celebes (in present-day Indonesia), between mid-November and mid-January, for Marege (the Land of the Wild Men, as they called Australia).  During the six months they spent fishing in Australian waters, they would set up temporary camps on shore to dry their catch, and it was inevitable that they would come into contact with the local Aboriginal tribes. 

As a result of these meetings, articles were traded, Macassan words entered local Aboriginal dialects, and children of mixed blood were born, while Aboriginal men were known to have voyaged to Macassar and returned the next season.  But this contact with the vast population of the
East Indies also carried the danger of exposure to the regular plagues of smallpox that swept the heavily populated islands of the region.  One epidemic in particular killed perhaps one-third of all the people of Sumatra in 1783.  Could this particularly virulent outbreak have been the source of the deadly plague in Sydney Cove six years later?

Since a voyage from the East Indies took only about two weeks, an infected man who embarked there, seemingly well, could succumb to the disease en route, arrive in northern Australia in a highly infectious state, and pass the disease on to the local tribes. Recent studies reveal that an extensive Aboriginal traveling and trading network existed across Australia, along which items of value, both local and imported from the islands, moved slowly from tribe to tribe around the country. Did smallpox follow this route too?

A fascinating analogy exists in a similar smallpox epidemic of the 1860's, which began in the Gulf in 1860 after the praus had departed for the season, and spread westwards to Port Darwin.  By 1865-70 Aborigines in Western Australia from Roeboume to Geraldton were stricken, and by 1866-1867, great numbers of dead and dying Aborigines were observed on the shores of the Great Australian Bight, with survivors stating that "the disease came to them from the north".  Although it is unclear that this was all the one continuous infection, it at least suggests that the Sydney smallpox epidemic might well have originated in Sumatra in 1783 and slowly traversed the continent to Port Jackson.

Perhaps further studies will reveal the truth, and finally absolve the First Fleeters from the unjust accusation of having been the bringers of "the dreadful havock."

This article was published in the Site Gazette
Volume 6 Number 1 January 2000 ISSN 1235

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