A VERY CONVENIENT THEORY – SMALLPOX 1789 – IT WAS THE MACASSANS STUPID

By a strange coincidence, smallpox reached Port Jackson at about the same time as the First Fleet’. Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders, UNSW Press, 2006 

1787 – 13 May, England: The ‘First Fleet’ a large armed squadron, eleven (11) British ships with a complement of 1500 souls, sailed from Portsmouth to invade the island continent of New Holland.

1788 – January, Port Jackson: In January 1788 Commander Captain Arthur Phillip RN established an English settlement at Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

1789 – April, Sydney: ‘Smallpox had decimated the indigenous population probably not brought by the Europeans, as first feared, but possible introduced by Indonesian traders visiting the far northern coast of Australia’. Pybus. op.cit.

Up to 1,500 Macassans a year would reach [northern] Australia and they did influence the Aborigines by trading iron axes, tobacco, cloth, knives and glass. They taught the Aboriginal of those parts how to make dug-out canoes, more substantial than the simple water-craft of stringy-bark’. Stewart Harris, Treaty, It’s Coming Yet, 1979  

1788: The Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ did not find Sydney’s Eora Peoples familiar with iron axes, knives, tobacco, cloth or glass but when introduced these items were valued highly.

‘It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous [smallpox] matter in bottles’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

In April 1789 one-half of Sydney’s local Aborigines died of disease. Smallpox ‘in bottles’ is hard evidence and their deaths can not be dismissed as ‘a strange coincidence’.

It has also been suggested, the outbreak may have stemmed from its appearance at Samartra in the early 1780s. However given the way smallpox expresses; the soles of the feet, palms of hands, face and eyes – affecting sight –  swollen mucous membranes leading to extreme thirst and difficulty swallowing – make such a suggestion risible.

These physical difficulties, given the time-frame, added to the strict protocols observed by Aboriginals when entering the country of another clan for either peaceful or hostile purposes, make it impossible for Aborigines to have travelled such a great distance from the extreme north of the continent to its far south to coincide neatly with the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ in January 1788.

April is the cruellest month’. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

1789 – April, Sydney Cove: Smallpox appeared among local Eora Aborigines a whole year after the ‘First Fleet’ arrived.

Twenty (20) years earlier, in April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, the noted Royal Society botanist, while voyaging on HMS Endeavour, visited both the southern and northern coastlines of eastern Australia.

Banks noted in his journal; ‘their Canoes were the only things in which we saw a manifest difference between the Southern and northern people’. 

Sydney canoes bore no resemblance to those used by Aborigines in Australia’s far north; ‘large canoes fitted with sails and fighting stages capable of holding 30 men each’.

Marine Captain Watkin Tench of the Sydney garrison, on first observing Sydney craft, echoed Joseph Bank’s observations; ‘the canoes being nothing more than a large piece of bark tied up at both ends with vines’.  

Initially Tench viewed these bark and string canoes as ‘dispicable’ but later he came to value their shallow draught and superior buoyancy as far better suited to local conditions than heavier, unwieldy, wooden English craft.  

Absence of canoes similar to large northern craft is strong evidence; the ‘tyranny of distance’ protected Aborigines in the far south of the continent from incursions from its far north.

It is to Mary Bryant a most remarkable young convict women that we owe the description of these Carpentarian craft. In March 1791 Mary,  Will her convict husband their two (2) small children and seven (7) male convicts, escaped from Sydney in Governor Arthur Phillip’s own cutter and rowed to Timor. See: The Great Escape

What followed was an epic tale of tragedy and triumph. Before journey’s end both children, Charlotte aged four (4) and baby Emanuel, died as did Mary’s husband.

In 1793 Mary with four (4) remaining survivors stood in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with ‘return to the realm before expiry’.

Since the Transportation Act of 1717-18 ‘return before expiry’ attracted the death sentence. James Boswell the famed diarist and author fought for and, against all odds, won freedom for the surviving ‘Botany Bay Escapees’. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany Bay Escapees

THE BACK STORY

SMALLPOX: BOSTON 1775 – SYDNEY 1789

‘Nothing instilled fear in American soldiers and civilians so much as the prospect that the British might use smallpox as a weapon war…Rumours of germ warfare at Boston had circulated as early as March 1775.

By year’s end, [General] Thomas Gage had turned over his command to Sir William Howe, but talk of germ warfare had failed to subside instead, the evidence mounted’. Professor Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782,  2001 

In America Britain’s use of smallpox as a biological weapon during the Indian Wars of the 1760s and, later in America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783), remain subjects of interest.

Not so in Australia, here we make do with second-hand assertions; a disease ‘thought to be smallpox’  ‘probably’ ‘possibly’  and, even when acknowledged, its appearance is characterised a ‘strange coincidence’.

1789, April: A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population around 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 Reference Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998

However one (1) of the ‘First Fleet’ population did contract smallpox. Joseph Jefferies a ‘Native American Indian’ was diagnosed by ‘First Fleet’ physicians, familiar with a disease endemic in England, he died on or about the 10th of May 1789.

The young adventurer from New York’s Staten Island had  joined the crew of HMS Supply when in August 1787 the fleet en-route to Botany Bay, put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies. See: Joseph Jefferies: From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One then There Was None

‘The epidemic not only killed a significant proportion of the indigenous population but also destablised society…there is no easy answer to the fraught quest of [Aboriginal] clan boundaries in Sydney, particularly because an epidemic in 1789 caused massive disruption of the indigenous peoples in the area‘. Pauline Curby, Randwick [A History] , 2010.

The devastating consequences of smallpox; ‘not only killed a significant proportion of the population [caused] massive disruption [and] destabilised society’ are not in dispute, neither are the circumstances surrounding its appearance, starvation and a desperate struggle for survival in both black and white populations yet its origin is contested.

1788 – September:‘They [Aborigines] are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support. These people last summer would neither eat shark or stingray, but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment’. Arthur Phillip dispatch to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788  

Yet its cause white survival, the fight for resources although manifestly obvious, is ignored ‘politically and bibliographically controversialobscured by smoke and mirrors.  See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

‘Yesterday twenty [20] of the natives came down to the beach, each armed with a number of spears, and seized on a good part of the fish caught in the seine [trawling nets]…several stood at a small distance with their spears poised ready to throw them if any resistance was made’. Arthur Phillip to Under-Secretary Evan Nepean, July 10, 1788 See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove from January 1788 to July 1790

EPILOGUE

‘Captain John Hunter, commander of the Sirius, wrote in his journal that initially the tribes of the Port Jackson region met the settlers of the First Fleet with almost unrelieved hostility…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

While white Australia shows little or no interest in smallpox 1789 Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples, their lives coloured by the virus, stand testament to its; ‘massive [biological] disruption[that] destabilised [their] society’.

‘If you think anthrax is a terrible bio-weapon, it’s nothing compared to smallpox. This disease has been eradicated from the world so most of the population is now highly susceptible to it’.

According to Dr. Frank Fenner: ‘It has about a 20% fatality rate in unvaccinated persons, higher in children and old people – and most of the world is unvaccinated‘. http://www.abc.net.au./catalyst/stories/404989.htm

‘Most of the world is unvaccinated’ the unintended consequences of eradication. In a time of biological cloak and dagger,‘rogue states’ and germ warfare, especially as there is no vaccine available, white skin offers no barrier.

ADDENDUM

‘Australian scientists who made a killer virus by accident have raised the spectre of biological weapons in the hands of terrorists or rogue states…They inserted a gene called interleukin-4 (IL-4) into the virus because this would boost antibody production.

The result astonished them: the IL-4 killed the mice by shutting down a vital part of their immune system. It also made the engineered virus unnaturally resistant to normal vaccines’.

The Australian mouse that roared. One Australian scientist proffered: ‘It would be safe to assume that if some idiot did put human IL – 4 into human smallpox, they’d increase the lethality quiet dramatically’. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2001/jan/11/genetics/uk/news

 

 

 

 

 

 

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