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

Smallpox inoculation, using either vesicle pus or dried scab-matter was widespread in the British armed forces from the mid 1760s. It served a dual purpose; to infect and protect and to infect and destroy.

In July 1776 during America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783), Admiral Richard Howe RN commander of the Royal Navy’s ‘North American Station’  based, ‘the largest fleet in British naval history’, just on four hundred (400) vessels, at Staten Island.

Brazil: In August – September 1787 the ‘First Fleet’ an amphibious expeditionary force of eleven (11) vessels bound for Botany Bay, put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies.

Joseph Jefferies, a North American Indian born on New York’s Staten Island, joined the crew of the ‘First Fleet’s HMS Supply. He was with his ship on Norfolk Island when, in April 1789 ‘a smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population around Sydney’. 

Norfolk Island: Earlier, on the 14th of February 1788, to prevent the French from occupying the island, Phillip took the extraordinary decision to send Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN to establish a satellite settlement on the island.

1789 – April, Sydney: ‘A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population around Sydney. Inexplicably the epidemic did not affect the Europeans, 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.

On Jefferies return to Sydney the young adventurer contracted smallpox and died on or about the 10th of May 1789.

1789 – Sydney, April: ‘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’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, Facsimile edition, 1981


‘In 1764…Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered blankets infected with smallpox be distributed among enemy [Indian] tribes and the order was acted on’. William Mc Neill, Plagues and People, Anchor, New York, 1976

At Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh General Thomas Gage Amherst’s second-in-command,  was ‘implicated’ in the distribution of those blankets. Marine Major Robert Ross commander of the Sydney garrison and the settlement’s judge-advocate Marine Captain David Collins, served under General Gage during the Siege of Boston 1775-1776.

Ross and Collins were familiar with the yin and yang of inoculation, it is highly likely both benefited from smallpox inoculation during the year-long Boston Siege. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

1788 – Botany Bay: From the moment the ‘First Fleet’ arrived at in Botany Bay (18-20 January 1788) the white population of 1500 souls (1300 men, 221 women, 50 free children, relied heavily for survival on the First Peoples’ food resources.See: Abandoned and Left to Starve January 1788 – June 1790

‘The beginning of the month of May, 1788, was marked by increasing distrust between the white intruders and aboriginal occupants of the soil. The calls of hunger were imperative….Early in May the first fatal result of these quarrels took place’. Samuel Bennett. ibid.

July:  By mid-winter July 1788, Phillip wrote; ‘They [Aborigines] are now much distressed for food, few fish are caught & I am told that many of them appear on the Beach when the Boats go to haul the Seines [trawling nets], very weak & anxious to get the small fish, of which they make no account in the Summer.

Nor can we give them much assistance as very few fish are now caught, & we have many sick’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788, Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998

Before leaving England in May 1787 Governor Phillip had been told to expect more men and supplies to ‘follow shortly’ but none came.  See: On the Rocks

Before ‘evacuating‘ Botany Bay and relocating to Sydney Cove on the 26th of January; ‘officers…painted some conspicuous rocks near the entrance that the settlement was now at Port Jackson’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN, A Voyage to New South Wales 1786-1792, Facsimile edition, Ure Smith, 1969

1788 – Africa, August: Phillip could wait no longer. In August he ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare HMS Sirius for a lone perilous voyage to Cape Town to buy food from the Dutch.

1788 – October: HMS Sirius sailed for the Cape of Good Hope on 2nd of October 1788. Of the voyage Captain Hunter RN wrote:

‘We left Port Jackson…and pursuing our passage by way of Cape Horn, but with much cold and disagreeable wr. [weather]. We saw an astonishing number of ice islands…we kept our Christmas going round the Horn’. John Hunter, Transactions at Sydney Cove and Norfolk Island ??????

Meanwhile at Sydney, to relieve the pressure when Golden Grove, the last remaining chartered ‘First Fleet’ vessel departed for England, Governor Phillip ordered she take a number of marines and convicts to Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing time away.

By that time it was known there fish were plentiful year round and vegetables thrived in fertile soil.


1788 – Sydney, November: With warmer weather fish returned to Sydney waters in greater numbers. ‘Distrust’ between black and white escalated.

‘On several occasions, when the [white] men sent to fish had obtained [many] by means of large seine nets which had been brought out from England…the natives boldly claimed a portion for themselves’. Samuel Bennett. ibid.

No ships, no supplies, no food, month on month hunger dominated and fear deepened in the white population.

As another winter approached fish again left the harbour to spawn. The indigenous and introduced populations competed with ‘unabated animosity’ for the same dwindling resource.

‘The dread of want in a country destitute of natural resource is ever peculiarly terrible. We had long turned our eyes with impatience towards the sea, cheered by the hope of seeing supplies from England approach’. Watkin Tench. ibid.

In April 1789 something had to give and it did  ‘the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community’.


1789 – Sydney, 8 May: ‘After an absence of two hundred and nineteen [219] days [HMS Sirius] entered between the heads of the harbour and worked up to Sydney Cove…we did  not see a canoe or a native the whole way coming up the harbour’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN. ibid.

Bradley soon learned why; ‘smallpox had made dreadful havoc among them’.

In eighteenth century England smallpox was endemic. Dr John White, the fleet’s chief medical officer, with experience in the American war,  ‘at once pronounced the disease under which they [Aborigines] were suffering to be smallpox’.

Autopsies were performed on at least two (2) Aboriginal victims of the virus. Although the presence or absence of smallpox cannot be demonstrated at post-mortem, Dr White’s examination gave him no cause to alter his own or the diagnosis of his six (6) assistant physicians.

Despite ‘variolous matter in bottles’ and the disease presentation; its sudden onset, rapid spread, pattern of distribution; ‘not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people’. 

While the pattern of mortality; ‘old and young [ [Aborigines] died indiscriminately’ as is known to occur in a ‘virgin’ outbreak. Yet historians, social commentators and modern medicos, with no experience of smallpox, doubt the veracity of Dr White’s diagnosis.

Currently some have taken a giant leap and settled on a comfortable alternate diagnosis – chicken-pox. DVD – Greatest  Cities of the World, Griff Rhys Jones – Disc 2, Sydney – F.fwd 27 minutes.

There is no documentary evidence whatever that an epidemic of chicken-pox, a highly infectious droplet-spread, but rarely fatal virus, raged in the poorly nourished white population.

‘Variolous matter for use by inoculation was brought out from England in bottles with the First Fleet but it is not known whether this material was ever used.

If it was, it may have been the source of the disastrous epidemic of smallpox amongst the Aborigines in 1789. Dr Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Child Health and Welfare in Australia from 1788, Pergamon Press, Sydney 1978

‘If it was the source’? Any suggestion that it was is either ignored or ridiculed. While the origin and nature of the 1789 epidemic is contested, its consequences – ‘massive disruption – destabilized society’ are not. See: A Convenient Theory: Smallpox – It was the Macassans Stupid

‘But 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 seem inexplicable. Whatever might be the cause the existence of the malady could no longer be doubted’. Watkin Tench. ibid.

Surely it is time to consider Joseph Jefferies. Was he a vector or a victim? The evidence points to Joseph Jefferies as victim. This opens a new avenue of investigation.


Smallpox played a vital part in America’s victory in the War of Independence 1775-1783. In December 1776 General George Washington, to preserve Boston from destruction, permitted the British to end the Siege with an orderly evacuation by sea.

Washington, who bore the pock-marks of his own encounter with the ‘speckled-monster’ stipulated only ‘variolated‘ members of his army be permitted to enter Boston after the British evacuation.

Washington later insisted on inoculation for his  entire Continental Army of foreign troops – French 1778 and Spanish 1779 – and his home-grown local militia.

Arm to to arm inoculation had been introduced into the British Navy sometime in the 1760s.

‘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’. Bennett. ibid.

In the light of what we have learned from Co-vid 19 the question must be asked what was so special about the white people who invaded New Holland?

We do know that when as late as 1796 Edward Jenner, who is credited with producing a reliable protective smallpox vaccine from matter taken from cow-pox, a similar virus, submitted his paper to the Royal Society that eminent scientific body rejected his work.

In 1798 Jenner published his work at his own expense.

White Australians, the military, administrative, settler population – were among the first in the world to receive Edward Jenner’s ‘lymph’.

In 1803 the first batch of ‘lymph‘ -as his vaccine was described – arrived in Sydney aboard the ship Coromandel.   

Medicos advertised its arrival and distributed it at no fee. Similar ‘parcels of lymph’ were sent to a few other out-posts of the British Empire. Places that had experienced previous outbreaks of smallpox.

What Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples deserve to know, was there an element ‘smallpox’ pre-planning for the ‘ First Fleet’ ? There are some threads to follow.

But if  Governor Phillip’s papers could be found it would make the task a lot easier.


And if  Governor Arthur Phillip’s papers were not missing there might be a we might have


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