‘From time to time throughout history, peoples and governments around the world have used micro-organisms as efficient and cost-effective weapons of mass destruction’. Professor Dorothy H. Crawford, The Invisible Enemy, Edinburgh University Press, 2000.


In 1763, in the earliest recorded deliberate release of a virus, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, British Commander-in-Chief in North America, authorized the distribution of smallpox-contaminated blankets to native Americans who were harassing European settlers around the garrison at Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania’. Crawford. op. cit.

Britain & the North American Indian Wars: Britain’s General Thomas Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst during the Indian Wars ( Seven Years War) 1756-1763.

 ‘We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital, I hope it will have the desired effect’. Cited, Pox Americana: Professor Elizabeth A. Fenn, The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, 2001

Gage was implicated when, in 1763 at Fort Pitt now Pittsburgh, blankets infected with smallpox were distributed among local Indian tribes.

“This act had the sanction of an impressive array of British officers, including Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander in chief at the time, and General Thomas Gage, who replaced Amherst and signed off on reimbursements for the “Sundries” used ” to convoy the Smallpox to the Indians”. Fenn. op. cit.

1718-1775: Convict transportation to America: Britain between 1718 and 1775, tied to twice yearly Assize and County Court Sittings,  exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) convicted criminals to America where they were sold at regular ‘slave scrambles’ mainly to plantation owners.

Most men worked alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa to labour in the tobacco fields while women prisoners were purchased as house-servants.

1775 – Revolution: Britain’s American colonists rose in revolt against the ‘mother country’ in 1775. The colonists were not as one. Loyalists remained faithful to the Crown and fought alongside English troops.

‘The Americans had the inestimable advantage of the presence of a commander-in-chief, who, whether or not he was a great general, was assuredly a great man’. H. E. Egerton, The Causes and Character of the American Revolution, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1923 

Patriot rebels led by General George Washington fought for an independent America.

1775 – April, Massachusetts: ‘In mid-April Governor Gage at Boston received specific instructions to put down the rebellion in [that] colony…[were] beyond his resources. But he decided to seize the main dump of rebel supplies in the village of Concord’ J.R. Christie, Crisis of Empire, Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, Edward Arnold, London, 1966

From Boston Gage sent about seven hundred (700) troops on a march of less than twenty (20) miles to Concord with orders to destroy a cache of rebel armaments. En-route, at Lexington, a small group of Patriots challenged the British. Despite causalities on both sides the ‘column‘ was able to push onto Concord ‘where the British carried out its operations’.

News of the Concord skirmish spread like wildfire. As the British pulled out for the return to Boston they were greatly outnumbered by local Patriot troops. Constant harassment very nearly turned orderly retreat into a rout. The British lost seventy-three (73) killed and one hundred and seventy-four (174) wounded.

The Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill, the first major engagement of the American war, ended in stalemate. Four thousand (4,000) British troops retreated to Boston. Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins, then a young subaltern were among the English soldiers involved in the Boston siege.

When in 1776 ‘an army of Massachusetts militia swarmed to the siege of Boston’ Christie says English causalities were high especially among Officers and NCO’s.

In the British army, by the mid -18th century, smallpox inoculation using dried scab-matter, was established practice. Inoculation played a dual role; infect to protect – infect to destroy.

‘Nothing instilled fear in American soldiers and civilians so much as the prospect that the British might use smallpox as a weapon of war….[General] Washington’s unheralded and little-recognised resolution to inoculate the continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war’. Professor Fenn. ibid.

George Washington used the year long Boston siege to recruit local and overseas fighters; he armed them, trained them and inoculated them against smallpox.

‘Military and naval experience started new ideas of hygiene….Smallpox inoculation began to have significant results from about 1760’. ChristopherHill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution,, 1983.

It is highly likely Major Robert Ross commander of the Sydney marine garrison in 1788 and, Captain David Collins as judge-advocate the  settlement’s senior law-man, benefited from inoculation against the smallpox virus and brought that knowledge with them.

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the War of American Independence. It ended formally in September 1783 with the Treaty of Versailles. Under its terms Britain lost her thirteen (13) colonies; North and South Carolina. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and the right to export convicted criminals to America.


1786 – 6 August, London – New Holland: After eight (8) years of war and three (3) years of inertia‘His Majesty [George III] has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay [New South Wales]’ to replace America as its primary penal destination.

1786 – 21 August 1786, London: ‘Orders had been issued for the transportation of six hundred and eighty (680) males and seventy (70) female convicts to New South Wales [with] two [2] companies of marines to form a military establishment’. Historical Records of New South Wales

The numbers were later amended; four [4] companies of marines accompanied five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts and one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convict camp-followers. But these were convicts with a difference; all male prisoners rationed as; ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ were available for combat.

1787 – 13 May, England: Britain’s ‘First Fleet’, a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships, with a complement of 1500 souls (one-half common criminals), sailed from Portsmouth on the 13th May 1787 bound for Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay:  Within three (3) days between 18-20 January 1788 all eleven (11) ‘First Fleet’ ships arrived at Botany Bay. See: Lieutenant William Dawes & the ‘Eternal Flame’

Botany Bay wide-open, difficult to defend, also exposed ships to fierce winds and cross-currents. Even more important, there was not enough fresh water to support such a large number – 1500 – Captain Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 21 January: Next day three (3) long boats were deployed and Captain Phillip set off with some senior officers to explore the surrounding countryside.

Port Jackson: After first sailing as far south as Sutherland the boats retraced and sailed nine (9) miles (14km) north of the original beach-head. Late that afternoon they rowed into what Phillip described as; ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’.  

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: By evening on the 23rd they were back in Botany Bay with good news the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home at Port Jackson where a running stream guaranteed an endless supply of fresh water.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, two (2) ships flying the French flag appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay. These were ships Arthur Phillip knew well.

In August 1785, he had watched them depart Brest Harbour on a voyage of exploration, modelled on those Captain James Cook RN and projected to take three (3) years. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

The sight of Sirius with gun-ports open, cannon at the ready, delivered La Perouse a message not to be ignored that, plus bad weather, forced La Boussole and L’Astrolabe south to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland.

‘He [Phillip] ordered a party of marines to be sent to Point Sutherland to hoist English colours. He also stipulated that the move to Port Jackson be kept secret, and that no one was to go on board the French ships’. Moore. ibid.

1788 – 25 January, Port Jackson: Aboard HMS Supply Phillip quit Botany Bay; ‘in the meantime he thought it wise to delay the fleet’s departure till the following day’.

Supply, dwarfed by towering sandstone bluffs, moved slowly surveying the harbour and by 6 pm that evening dropped anchor in a snug cove where; ‘ships can anchor so close to the shore that at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload’.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: Next morning at first light, while the English ships were preparing to make what turned out to be an extremely dangerous exit from Botany Bay, Captain Phillip came ashore hoisted ‘English Colours’ and proclaimed Britain’s victory over France. See: A Riddle – When Was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it was the First Fleet 

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land.

When Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove in 1788 he was not claiming the land for the British to take it away from the Aboriginal people but to make sure the French did not make the claim first’. Professor Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, ed, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017 

When at 7 pm – 26 January – the entire fleet finally anchored alongside Supply, they were greeted by the Union Jack flying from a flagstaff erected that very morning. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

1788 – 27-28 January: As male convicts disembarked and began the hustle and bustle of preparing a settlement for ‘its new possessors’ Marine Captain David Collins reflected; ‘for the first time since creation the stillness [had] been interrupted by the rude sounds of the labourer’s axe, and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants; a stillness and tranquillity which from that day were to give way to the voice of labour…and the busy hum of its new possessors’. David Collins, Vol. 1, An Account of the Colony of New South Wales  

Work progressed until a parade ground was cleared and there were sufficient tents to house most of the paltry number of  ‘First Fleet’ women.

1788 – 6 February: ‘At five o’clock, this morning, all things were got in order for the landing the whole of the women and three of the ships longboats came alongside us to receive them’. Bowes-Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, cited Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Allen and Unwin, 1999

1788 – 7 February: By 11 am the following morning all prisoners sat in a circle on the newly prepared parade ground. At mid-day Captain-General, now Governor Arthur Phillip with all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ produced documents – Letters Patent – read the Act of Parliament – 27, Geo. 3, cap. 56 and took formal possession of New South Wales ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’.

‘The main battle was about having enough to eat’. Don Watson, The Story of Australia, 1984

These English men, women and children arrived virtually empty-handed and with empty bellies. Little did they know they would live through thirty-six (36) months of ‘misery and horror’ before a crumb or a word came from England. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

In January 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip, estimated approximately 1500 Aborigines lived in the Sydney area. Overnight the population had doubled.

Two (2) populations – one ‘existing in a land at dawn of history’, the other invaders, lived side-by-side competing for the same resources but without equity; traditional hook and vine versus trawling nets capable of hauling ‘four hundred weight of fish’.

The ‘Robinson Crusoes’ of the ‘First Fleet’ survived to the extreme detriment of Australia’s First Peoples whose food resources they stole. A Plague of Locusts – The Englishmen of the First Fleet

‘The latter part of 1788 and the first four [4] months of the following year was one of the darkest ever experienced in the history of the settlement’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery & Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, Currawong facsimile ed. 1981.

1789 – Sydney:

‘Famine was approaching with gigantic strides…men abandoned themselves to the most desponding reflections and adopted the most extravagant conjectures’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Samuel Bennett says; ‘at the end of January 1789, there was no single vessel in the harbour’. HMS Supply had taken supplies to Norfolk Island where, as early as mid February 1788, a satellite settlement had been established.

1788 – 2 October, Cape of Good Hope: At the beginning of October 1788 HMS Sirius departed Sydney for Cape Town on a voyage estimated to take more than six (6) months. Captain Captain John Hunter RN was to buy urgently needed food and medicines from the Dutch.

1789 – Sydney:  Many experienced naval officers had grave doubts HMS Sirius would survive her perilous voyage to Africa. Just when it  seemed nothing but death awaited the stranded Englishmen, made mad by isolation, hunger, fear and despair, did an action born of ‘the most extravagant conjectures’ alter the supply-demand equation at Sydney?

‘It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles, but to infer that it [the 1789 smallpox epidemic] was produced from this cause was a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration. Watkin Tench, ibid.

Over a considerable period a gang of marines using counterfeit keys had robbed the government store-house.

1789 – March, Sydney: ‘ Six (6) marines, the flower of our battalion, were hanged by the public executioner…for at various times they robbed the public stores of flour, meat, spirits, tobacco and many other articles’. Tench. ibid.

An unknown number of these keys were in circulation so nothing in storage was secure at the time of the smallpox outbreak.

1789 – April, Sydney: A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but [Governor] Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community. People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998. 

Tench’s ‘ supposition so wild’, suggests at the time of the outbreak, many in the settlement voiced just that opinion; ‘variolous  matter…from England’ was the source of the outbreak.

Smallpox affected only one (1) of two (2) available populations. Approximately sixty (60) malnourished English children, most with no prior exposure to the virus were as vulnerable as Sydney’s Eora Peoples, yet; ‘not one case of the disorder occurred’.

‘Not one case of the disorder [smallpox] occurred among the white people either afloat or on shore although there were several children in the settlement; but a North American Indian…took the disease and died’. Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1810, Samuel Bennett, facsimile ed. 1981

1789 – May, Sydney: Joseph Jefferies was that ‘North American Indian’. The young adventurer, born on New York’s Staten Island, joined as crew of HMS Supply when the fleet put into Rio for supplies in August 1787.

Joseph Jefferies died in early May 1789 from an illness the fleet’s physicians had no hesitation in diagnosing as smallpox.  See: Joseph Jefferies: From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One Then There Was None 

1789 – May, Sydney: Was the smallpox outbreak of 1789 engineered to save the lives of Englishmen who, according to Samuel Bennett, were ‘sent to the end of the world by their government and abandoned to starvation’?

If so, how was it achieved when ‘the chief redeeming feature [Sydney] was the absence of exotic disease’.Dr Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Pergamon Press,  1978

Major Robert Ross and Captain David Collins, were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter; infect to protect, infect to destroy.

During the Siege of Boston it is highly likely both men benefited from smallpox inoculation and brought to Sydney knowledge of the disease and the ramifications if introduced into a ‘virgin’ population. See: An Evacuation: My Brother’s Keeper – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

‘But how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers could at one have introduced itself, and have spread so widely seem inexplicable. Whatever might be the cause, the existence of the malady could no longer be doubted. Tench. ibid.

Watkin Tench’s rejection of a deliberate release as ‘wild supposition’ is consistent with what is known of his character. Captain Tench with Marine Lieutenant William Dawes were two (2) of very few ‘pearls’ scattered among modern Australia’s early founding fathers. See: Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’

Tench speculated; ‘how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’.

Elapsed time renders evidence circumstantial. This holds as true for Sydney 1789 as it did for Professor Elizabeth Fenn in her award-winning expose – Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782. 

Aside from material evidence; ‘variolous matter in bottles’, there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence; taken together they make ‘a ‘wild supposition’ very worthy ‘of consideration’. 

1) Why ‘Strangers’ ? twenty (20) years earlier, April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks the Royal Society’s respected botanist, aboard HMS Endeavour, put into Botany Bay.

Banks in particular made much of the Aborigines’ preference for nakedness. Both Banks and Cook remarked on ceremonial and battle scarring but neither made mention of smallpox pitting.

Given the cyclic nature of smallpox the absence of pitting is indicative of 1789 to be a ‘virgin’ event.

2) Statistical improbability; given the abysmal nutritional status of both populations – English and Indigenous; ‘not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people’.

3) Disease presentation; sudden onset and pattern of distribution; ‘although there were several [white] children in the settlement’ with no prior exposure none were infected. In the Aboriginal community the pattern of mortality was indiscriminate all ages were affected.

While the origin and nature of the 1789 smallpox epidemic is contested its devastating consequences cannot be disputed. Yet it is said currently; ‘historians tend to avoid the subject as too complicated’!!!!!

2018 – January/ February: ‘The extent to which it [decline in the Aboriginal population] came unintentionally from the white presence or from many other factors, including smallpox from visiting Indonesian fishermen, is debatable and historians tend to avoid the subject as too complicated’. Robert Murray, To the Land, Boys, We Live In, Quadrant 543, Quadrant Magazine, Ltd. Sydney, 2018   

Aside from the very convenient ‘Macassan Theory’, no responsibility has been ascribed for an event that had profound cultural and biological implications for Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. A Very Convenient Theory – Smallpox – It Was The Macassans Stupid

‘Once smallpox entered the equation this changed. Perhaps half of the [Aboriginal] population of the Port Jackson region died in a few months’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, Cambridge University Press, 2001

To modern Australia’s shame, apart from the late Professor Noel G. Butlin – Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, 1982– and Craig Mear’s essay: The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society Volume 94, Part 1, June 2008, no investigation, let alone rigorous epidemiological examination of the 1789 smallpox epidemic, has been undertaken.



‘The colony was thrust largely upon its own resources in a wholly strange physical and social environment whose chief redeeming feature was the absence of exotic disease’. Dr Bryan Gandevia and Dr Simon Gandevia, Childhood Mortality and its social background in the first settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788-1792, Australian Paediatric Journal, 1975

Historians and commentators, within and without Australia, not only retreat from the diagnosis of smallpox, some have taken a giant leap, substitution – chicken-pox. DVD: Greatest Cities of the World, Griff Rhys Jones – Disc 2 Sydney/fwd 27 mins.

Nothing in the records suggest that highly infectious chicken-pox was present in the Anglo adult or child population. What was present was prolonged isolation and creeping starvation; ‘the misery and horror of [our] situation cannot be imparted even by those who have suffered under it’. Tench. ibid.


1789 – 5 May, Sydney: HMS Sirius returned from Africa at the beginning of May 1789 with some medicines and ‘127,000 pounds of flour’ most intended for the kings ships and what could be spared for the settlement. As he sailed up the harbour Captain Hunter was stunned to see Aboriginal bodies lying on the rocks.

‘Captain John Hunter, commander of the Sirius, wrote in his journal the British strayed from their settlement in armed parties. Initially the tribes of the Port Jackson region met the settlers of the first fleet with almost unrelieved hostility.


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