‘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

In 1763 General Gage was implicated in the distribution of infected blankets to local Indian tribes At Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh.

“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 exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) convicted criminals to America. Tied to twice yearly Assize and County Court Sittings on arrival in America convicts were sold at regular ‘slave scrambles’ to plantation owners.

Most men worked alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa to labour on tobacco and cotton plantations. Most women prisoners were purchased as house-servants.

1775Revolution: In 1775 Britain’s American colonists rose in revolt against the ‘mother country’. The colonists were not as one.

‘The [Patriot] 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 

General George Washington led his Patriot rebels in the fight for an independent ‘no taxes without representation’ . Loyalists remained faithful to the Crown and alongside English troops fought their brothers and sisters.

1775 – April, Massachusetts: ‘In mid-April Governor Gage at Boston received specific instructions…beyond his resources…to put down the rebellion in [that] colony’. 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

Gage ordered seven hundred (700) troops from Boston to Concord, a distance of less than twenty (20) miles, to destroy a cache of rebel armaments. En-route, at Lexington, a small group of Patriots challenged the British.

Although both sides suffered causalities Gage’s ‘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 militia whose harassment very nearly turned an orderly retreat into a rout. The British lost seventy-three (73) killed and one hundred and seventy-four (174) wounded.

Christie says of the Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill, the first major engagement of the American war, English causalities were high especially among Officers and NCO’s. It ended in stalemate with four thousand (4,000) British troops retreating to Boston.

An army of Massachusetts [Patriot] militia swarmed to the siege of Boston’.

The English were holed-up in Boston for just on a year. Among them was Marine Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins then a young subaltern.

‘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 siege to recruit local and overseas fighters, among them many experienced French infantrymen. Washington – in the ‘the most important decision of the war’ – inoculated his ‘Continental Army’ against the smallpox virus.

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

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

It is highly likely Major Robert Ross, commander of the Sydney marine garrison in 1788 and Captain David Collins, the Sydney settlement’s judge-advocate, although no lawyer its senior law man, benefited from inoculation and brought with them knowledge of smallpox prevention.

It is important to note Boston had a very intimate relationship with smallpox inoculation. As early as 1721-23 It had been successfully practised there.

1776:  Washington permitted the British undertake an orderly evacuation by sea in order to save Boston from destruction.

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 to America those criminals reprieved death on condition they be banished ‘from the realm’.

After eight (8) years of war and three (3) years of inertia and Brexit-like argy-bargy ‘His Majesty [George III] has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay [New Holland to replace America as its primary penal destination.

1786 – 21 August 1786, London: ‘Orders had been issued [6 August] 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

These numbers were later amended; four [4] companies of marines accompanied five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts with one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convict camp-followers.

All male prisoners rationed as; ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ were available for combat. See: A Riddle – When Was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it was the First Fleet 

1787 – 13 May, England: Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN 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) ships arrived at Botany Bay. See: Lieutenant William Dawes & the ‘Eternal Flame’

Botany Bay wide-open, exposed to fierce winds and cross-currents, was difficult to defend. Additionally there was insufficient fresh water to support such a large number – 1500 – so Captain Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for permanent settlement.

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

After going south as far as Sutherland the boats retraced and travelled nine (9) miles (14km) north of the original beach-head.

Port Jackson: Late that afternoon they rowed through towering headlands 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, Sydney Cove: By evening on the 23rd they were back in Botany Bay with good news. The ‘First Fleet’ had found a home, a snug cove with a running stream Phillip named the Tank Stream guaranteed an continuous supply of fresh water.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay:  At dawn ‘consternationtwo (2) French ships La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay.

Captain Phillip knew the French ships well. In August 1785 in foul weather he had watched Jean Francois La Perouse shepherd them out of Brest Harbour.

Phillip the spy was aware their wide-ranging voyage of exploration, modelled on those of Captain James Cook RN, was projected to take three (3) years and would include New Holland. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

‘There are two kinds of error: those of commission, doing something that should not be done, and those of omission, not doing something that should be done. The latter are much more serious than the former’. Kennneth Hooper and William Hopper, The Puritan Gift, I.B. Tauris 2009

‘Consternation’ before leaving Sydney Cove on the 23rd Captain Arthur Phillip RN had failed to raise ‘English Colours’.

‘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’. Professor Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, ed, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

Botany Bay, 24 January: The sight of Sirius 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 back out to sea – to who knew where they had gone.

‘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: Phillip in HMS Supply prepared to make a desperate dash for Port Jackson but bad weather held up departure until after mid-day.

In the meantime’ should La Perouse make another attempt to enter Botany Bay; ‘he [Phillip] thought it wise to delay the fleet’s departure till the following day’.

By 7 pm on the evening of the 25th Supply dropped anchor in Sydney 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: At first light next morning Phillip went ashore hoisted ‘English Colours’ and proclaimed Britain’s victory over France. Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘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’. Behrendt, Honest History Book. ibid.

Meantime the English fleet were preparing to make what turned out to be an extremely dangerous exit from Botany Bay – two ( 2) collisions and a near miss. Not until just on dark on 26 January was the entire fleet finally at anchor alongside HMS Supply.  Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘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  

1788 – 27-28 January: Australia’s new possessorsBritain’s criminal cast-offs those ‘deemed  too evil to remain within the kingdom’ disembarked the following day and began the hustle and bustle of preparing a settlement.

Driven by the lash under a merciless sun frenzied work progressed until a parade ground was cleared and there were sufficient tents to house 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 surrounded by red-coats with fixed bayonets 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 an 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

Sydney Cove: Overnight the population had doubled. Governor Phillip estimated approximately 1500 Aborigines lived in the Sydney area.

Two (2) populations lived side by side. One ‘existing in a land at dawn of history, and the invaders. They competed 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 English men, women and children of the ‘First Fleet’ arrived virtually empty-handed with empty bellies. Little did they know they would live through thirty-six (36) months of ‘misery and horror’ of uncertainty and absolute isolation before a crumb or a word came from England. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

‘The latter part of 1788 and the first four [4] months of the following year [1789] 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

Norfolk Island: As early as mid February 1788, to stymie La Perouse, who Phillip had no doubt intended to claim the island for their king Louis XVI, sent Lieutenant Gidley King RN with convicts and marines to establish a satellite settlement there.

1788 – 2 October, Africa:  No relief supplies had arrived by September 1788. At the beginning of October 1788, HMS Sirius – Captain John Hunter RN departed Sydney for a perilous voyage to Cape Town to buy food and medicines from the Dutch.

Estimated to take six (6) months there and back many experienced naval officers had grave doubts HMS Sirius could survive the outward voyage through ‘islands of ice’ around tempestuous Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope.

‘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.

Samuel Bennett says; ‘at the end of January 1789, there was no single vessel in the harbour’. HMS Sirius hopefully reached Africa safely.

On 2nd October 1788 the flagship departed Sydney for Cape Town to buy urgently needed food and medicines. HMS Supply had taken supplies to Norfolk Island 1650 kms west of Sydney. 

Just when it seemed nothing but death awaited, the stranded Englishmen made mad by ‘misery and horror’ of isolation, hunger, fear and despair, did an action born of ‘the most extravagant conjectures’ alter the supply-demand equation at Sydney?

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. 

Nothing in storage was secure. At the time of the outbreak an unknown number of counterfeit keys were in circulation. Over a considerable period a gang of seven (7) marines had used counterfeited keys to systematically rob 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.

Smallpox affected only one (1) of two (2) available populations.

‘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’. Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1810, Samuel Bennett, facsimile ed. 1981

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

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 (Siege of Boston 1775) were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter; infect to protect, infect to destroy.

They brought with them to Sydney both knowledge of the disease and the ramifications if smallpox was 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 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’. 

And why ‘Strangers’ ?  In April 1770 Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, the Royal Society’s respected botanist, aboard HMS Endeavour, put into Botany Bay.

Banks, father of five (5) daughters, made much of the Aborigines’ preference for nakedness. Banks and Cook remarked on ceremonial and battle scarring but no mention was made of smallpox pitting.

1) The absence of pock-marks and the cyclic nature of smallpox indicates the 1789 outbreak was a ‘virgin’ event.

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

3) Disease presentation; sudden onset, pattern of distribution and mortality –  in the Aboriginal community all ages were affected.

‘The origins of the smallpox epidemic of 1789 were debated at the time and have continued to puzzle historians ever since….Galgala [smallpox] determined the shape of the next few years of conflict, if not the outcome of the wars, and was a critical factor in the British military occupation of the Sydney region’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars 1788-1817, NewSouth Press, 2018

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

‘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 Magazine 543 January/ February, 2018


‘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.

Yet nothing in the records suggest 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.


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

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

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 Captain Hunter sailed up the harbour he was stunned to see Aboriginal bodies lying on the rocks.


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.

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

‘Historians tend to ignore the subject as too complicated’.

There are clues and with research the ‘puzzle’ can be solved.



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