Sydney Cove – July, 1788: ‘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’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Under-Secretary Evan Nepean, July 10, 1788, Frank Murcott Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales


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


‘They [Aborigines] are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support’ . Governor  Philip to Evan  Nepean, September 1788  


‘The voyage to and from Chilli and Peru would be Easy and Expeditious for a sailing from Port Jackson…the proximity of a Colony in that Part of the World to the Spanish settlement and the coast of Chile and Peru…makes it an important Post, should it ever be necessary to carry…war into those seas’. 

The night [8 May 1789] carried us [HMS Sirius] by daylight in sight of the entrance of Port Jackson, and in the evening we entered between the heads of he harbour and worked up to Sydney, where we anchored before dark after an absence of 219 days – 51 of which we lay in Table Bay Cape of Good Hope, so that, we had only been 168 days in describing that circle’. John Hunter Journal, Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, 1793, Bibliobaazar ed. 2008


You cannot overate the solicitude of H.M. Government on the subject of the Aborigines of New Holland. It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that the government should forget that the original aggression was ours’.  Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series, Vol. XX.


England -1787 May 13: Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN the ‘First Fleet’ – a large armed squadron of  eleven (11) ships charged with the invasion and conquest of New Holland, now Australia – sailed from Portsmouth ‘bound for Botany Bay’.

Botany Bay – 1788 January:  The First Fleet’s 1500 English men, women and children arrived at Botany Bay within thirty-six (36) hours between the 18th and -20th of  January 1788.

Port Jackson – January 26:  Governor Arthur Phillip RN selected a ‘snug’  cove nine (9) miles north of Botany Bay deep within Port Jackson for permanent settlement.

Sydney Cove – February 7:  Proclamation Day; Governor Phillip, without consent or treaty, proclaimed British Sovereignty over New Holland from ‘Cape York in the northern most extremity…to South Cape’. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

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 [southern Sydney] water-craft of stringy-bark’. Stewart Harris, Treaty, It’s Coming Yet, 1979  

The invaders did not find the Gadigal Peoples familiar with iron axes, knives, tobacco, cloth or glass.  When introduced however the locals valued them highly – especially the hatchet.


Botany Bay: Twenty (20) years earlier, 28 April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, the noted Royal Society botanist, while voyaging in HMS Endeavour entered Botany Bay.

They stayed nine (9) days.  Cook then sailed north continuing to chart the entire coastline of eastern Australia. Banks reported;   ‘their canoes were the only things in which we saw a manifest difference between the Southern and Northern people.

In 1788 Marine Captain Watkin Tench’s initial assessment of the Sydney craft; ‘being…despicable… nothing more than a large piece of bark tied up at both ends with vines’.

Tench  soon changed his mind. He came to value their shallow draught and superior buoyancy as far better suited to local conditions than the fleet’s heavier unwieldy wooden row-boats.


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

In 1770 Cook and Banks made much of the Aborigines preference for nakedness.  Yet neither made mention of pockmarks the unmistakable signature of a previous episode of the smallpox virus.

Sydney –  1789 April: ‘April is the cruellest month’ smallpox appeared among the Eora in April 1789 killing one-half of  Aboriginal families.

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

Hard evidence – ‘variolous matter in bottles – can not be dismissed so summarily. Cassandra  Pybus, the influential Australian historian’s ‘strange coincidence… probably not brought by the Europeans’   simply does not cut it.

The theory of an Indonesian outbreak stemmed in part from its appearance at Sumatra in the 1780s. But given the way smallpox expresses; on the soles of the feet, palms of the hands,  face, eyes – affecting sight – swollen mucous membranes, difficulty swallowing make such a suggestion highly problematic.

Additionally, given the great distances and challenging terrain, when added to strict protocols observed by Aboriginal Peoples entering the country of another clan, for either peaceful or hostile purposes, make it well nigh impossible for Aborigines infected by ‘Indonesian traders’ to travel from the extreme north of the continent to its far south, to coincide neatly within the known time-frame.


‘Large [northern] canoes fitted with sails and fighting stages capable of holding 30 men each’.

To Mary Bryant a remarkable young convict woman we owe the description of these large Carpentarian craft. The absence of canoes similar to them provide the strongest evidence; the ‘tyranny of distance’ protected Aborigines in the far south of the continent from tribal incursions, welcome or otherwise, from its far north.

Timor – 1791: In March 1791 Mary her convict husband William Bryant, their two (2) small children Charlotte and Emmanuel, with seven (7) male convicts stole a ships’ boat – Governor Phillip’s own cutter – escaped Sydney and rowed  to Timor.  See: The Great Escape

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

London -1793: Mary lived to stand again in the dock of the Old Bailey. In 1793 May with four (4) remaining survivors were charged with ‘return before expiry’.

Since the Transportation Act of 1717-18  if a convicted criminal, reprieved death on condition of banishment from ‘the realm’return[ed] before expiry’ they were hunted down and executed. See: Pandora’s Box- The Mutiny on the Bounty and the Botany Bay Escapees

James Boswell the celebrated English diarist and lawyer fought for and, against all odds, won freedom for the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany Bay Escapees


Sydney – April 1789: 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

The devastating consequences of smallpox; ‘massive disruption…destabilised society’ are not in dispute.Neither are the circumstances surrounding its appearance.

‘Last summer…these people…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’ Governor Phillip dispatch to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788. Frank Murcott Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales. Vol 1 & 2

Starvation pitched black and while populations into a desperate struggle for survival. Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove from January 1788 to June 1790 

‘No communication whatever having passed with out native country since the 13th May, 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth…Every morning from day-light until the sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in the hope of seeing a sail’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson,1961


‘The epidemic not only killed a significant proportion of the indigenous population but also destabilised 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.

Yet the virus’ origin remains contested.

‘Speculation that has taken attention away from the devastating effects on the society and culture of the Sydney people’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars, 1788-1817, NewSouth Press, 2018


In America Britain’s use of smallpox as a biological weapon remains a subject of interest.

‘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 

Although some First Fleets’ senior naval and marine officers, including Governor Phillip himself, along with Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, Marine Major Robert Ross, Captains Watkin Tench, David Collins and Lieutenant Dawes, served during America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783), in Australia scant attention is paid to the ‘speckled-monster’.

Historians make do with second-hand assertions;  ‘thought to be smallpox’  ‘probably’ ‘possibly’  ‘strange coincidence’.

Yet to this day the lives of  Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples stand testament to the ‘massive [biological disruption [that] destabilised [their future] society’.


On the 2nd of October 1788  Captain Hunter in HMS Sirius departed Port Jackson for Africa and the Cape of Good Hope. He was to buy food and medicines from the Dutch at Cape Town in the hope of saving the Sydney settlement from starvation.

Captain John Hunter RN the fleet’s principal navigator took Captain Cook’s 1770 charts. He chose to take a leaky Sirius into the Southern Oceans, guiding her through ‘islands of ice’ through tumultuous  Drake Passage, around Cape Horn to Cape Town.

The night [8 May 1789] carried us [HMS Sirius] by daylight in sight of the entrance of Port Jackson, and in the evening we entered between the heads of he harbour and worked up to Sydney, where we anchored before dark after an absence of 219 days – 51 of which we lay in Table Bay Cape of Good Hope, so that, we had only been 168 days in describing that circle’.  

Sirius on the 9th of May  1789, just ‘before dark… having navigating the globe Sirius  returned to  Sydney Cove. As Hunter sailed up the harbour he was astonished to see black bodies lying along the shoreline. No white bodies ‘inexplicably the epidemic did not affect the European population’. 


‘Galgala [smallpox] shaped 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’. Gapps. ibid.


‘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


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







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