‘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. 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’ The Invisible Enemy, Professor Dorothy H. Crawford, 2000.

America & the Indian Wars: General Thomas Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst during the Indian Wars. Gage was implicated in the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets among Indian tribes specifically at Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh.

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

1718-1775: Convict transportation – England to America: Between 1718 and 1775 Britain exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) of her convicted criminals to America. Sold in regular ‘slave scrambles’, mainly to plantation owners, they worked alongside  slaves shipped from Africa to labour in the tobacco fields.

1775, America & Revolution: At Lexington in 1775 America’s Patriot colonist rose in revolt against Britain the ‘mother country’. The colonists were not as one. Loyalists remained faithful to the Crown and fought alongside English troops led by General Thomas Gage.  Rebellious Patriots, led by General George Washington, fought for an independent America.

1775, Boston & Siege:  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. Among them Marine Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins a young subaltern.

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

In the British army of the 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’. Pox Americana, Professor Elizabeth Fenn. ibid.

1775-1776, America & Inoculation: The Siege of Boston lasted a year ( 1775-6) General George Washington, commander of America’s Patriots, used the time to recruit local and overseas fighters. He armed them, trained them and inoculated them against smallpox.

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the War of American Independence (1775-1783). The conflict ended formally with the Treaty of Versailles (Paris) signed in September 1783. Under its terms Britain lost her thirteen (13) ‘middle’ colonies and the right to ship 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 preferred 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’. The numbers were later amended to five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts and one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convicts embarked at Portsmouth.

But as all male convicts were rationed as soldiers ‘serving in the West Indies’ this was convict transportation with a difference

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: Britain’s ‘First Fleet’, a large squadron of eleven (11) ships, with a complement of 1,500 souls (one-half common criminals), all males convicted criminals, fed as soldiers, were available for combat. At dawn on the 13th May 1787 the armed convoy sailed from Portsmouth bound for Botany Bay, then New Holland now Australia.

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. Childhood Mortality and its social background in the first settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788-1792, Australian Paediatric Journal, 1975, Bryan Gandevia and Simon Gandevia.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: In a stunning feat of seamanship all eleven (11) ‘First Fleet’ ships arrived at Botany Bay within thirty-six (36) hours between 18-20 January 1788. Wide-open and difficult to defend the bay also exposed the fleet’s vessels to fierce winds. Importantly there was not enough fresh water to support such a large number and Captain Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, two (2) French ships Arthur Phillip knew well, appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay. By a short half-head Britain had won the race New Holland.

1788 – 26 January,  Sydney: The English ships sailed north nine (9) miles (14 km) of Botany Bay to Port Jackson and the Tank Stream’s fresh, sweet water. Importantly steep sandstone bluffs, Sydney Heads, provided a perfect defensive position to guard the military and naval settlement at Sydney Cove sheltered deep within Port Jackson.  See: A Riddle – When Was An Invasion Fleet Not An Invasion Fleet? When It Was The First Fleet.

When the complement of the ‘First Fleet’ – 1,500 souls – disembarked at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip, estimated approximately 1,500 Aborigines lived in the Sydney area. Overnight the population had doubled. The Englishmen came virtually empty-handed with empty bellies and for more than two (2) years Britain sent no logistical support.

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

Two (2) populations – one ‘existing in a land at dawn of history’, the other introduced – the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ abandoned, left to fend for themselves lived side-by-side competing for the same resources but without equity. One with traditional hook and line, the other with trawling nets capable of hauling ‘four hundred weight of fish’.

The marooned First Fleet  ‘Robinson Crusoes’ 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, pp. 141-3

‘At the end of January 1789, there was no single vessel in the harbour’. Bennett ibid.

Where were the kings ships? HMS Sirius and HMS Supply? To save the settlement from starvation HMS Sirius, the fleet flag-ship, had sailed for Africa on 2 October 1788 on a voyage estimated to take six (6) months. At Cape Town Captain John Hunter RN was to buy urgently needed food and medicines from the Dutch.

1789 – January, Norfolk Island: HMS Supply had taken supplies to Norfolk Island and it not known if  HMS Sirius had survived her voyage to Africa.

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

Sydney 1789: Smallpox & Marine Major Ross and judge-advocate Marine Captain David Collins. These two  (2) senior marine officers had served at Bunker Hill and Boston under General Thomas Gage.

1789 – Sydney: Marine Captain Watkin Tench opens the door onto a desperate Sydney circa 1789.‘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

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’.

1789 – April, 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.

Just when it seemed nothing but death awaited the stranded Englishmen, made mad by isolation, hunger 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. 

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

Smallpox affected only one (1) of two (2) available populations. Of the English population approximately sixty (60) were malnourished children. Most with no prior exposure to the virus and as such as vulnerable as Sydney’s Eora Peoples, yet all European children escaped its ravages.

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, p143

1789 – May, Sydney: Joseph Jefferies was that ‘North American Indian’. A 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. Diagnosed with smallpox Joseph Jefferies died at Sydney in early May 1789.

See: From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One American Indian 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 was the absence of exotic disease’. Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Pergamon Press,  1978

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

During the Siege of Boston it is highly likely both benefited from smallpox inoculation -infect to protect. Both brought to Sydney knowledge of the disease and its ramifications when introduced into a ‘virgin’ population , those without prior exposure or inoculation – therefore with no acquired immunity.

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, Sydney’s First Four Years. ibid.

Watkin Tench’s rejection of a deliberate release as ‘a wild supposition’ is consistent with what is known of his character. Captain Tench was one of very few ‘pearls’ scattered among modern Australia’s earliest founding fathers.

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. 

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

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

1) ‘Strangers’? At Sydney twenty (20) years earlier, April 1770 Captain James Cook RN and Joseph Banks Royal Society botanist, in HMS Endeavour’s voyage, put into Botany Bay. While  remarking on ceremonial and battle scarring neither made mention of of smallpox pitting on naked Aborigines. In 1789 the ‘First Fleet’ physicians made similar observations. No pock-marks –  no evidence of smallpox in the intervening period 1770-1789.

2) Statistical probability; given the poor health and 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 patterns of distribution; ‘ although there were several [white] children in the settlement’ and pattern of mortality in the indigenous community, all ages took the disease.

While the origin and nature of the 1789 smallpox epidemic is contested its devastating consequences, then and now, cannot be disputed.

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.

And 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.

See: A Very Convenient Theory – Smallpox – It Was The Macassans Stupid. 


…although there were several [about 60] children in the settlement… but a North American Indian [Joseph Jefferies] took the disease and died’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation. Ibid.

Currently historians and commentators, within and without Australia, not only retreat from the diagnosis of smallpox, some have taken a giant leap, substitution – the ludicrous suggestion it was chicken-pox. Highly infectious chicken pox was absent in the Anglo adult and child population. DVD: Greatest Cities of the World, Griff Rhys Jones – Disc 2 Sydney/fwd 27 mins.

1790 –  January, Sydney: ‘Here on the summit of the hill, [South Head], every morning  from daylight until the sunk sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in the hope of seeing a sail...We had now been two years in the country, and thirty-two months from England, in which long period no supplies except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius [May 1789] had reached us.

From the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth...the misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’. Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years. ibid.

1790 – June, Sydney; A further six (6) months passed before the dreadful isolation at Sydney was broken with the arrival of a second  fleet – four (4) ships – Lady Juliana, Neptune, Scarborough and Suprize.

These ships brought the first contingent – one hundred and fifteen (115) officers and men of the New South Wales Corps, three hundred (300) female prisoners ( 226 on Lady Juliana} and approximately 1,000 male convicts. However 25% of male prisoners embarked in England on Neptune, Suprize and Scarborough, died during the brutal voyage while a further 15% died within one (1) or two (2) months after disembarking in Sydney Cove.

See: A Second Convict Fleet – Britain’s Grim Armada – The Dead and the Living Dead 

1790 – June 29, Sydney: Not until the end of June 1790 did the store-ship Justinian bring the first supplies from England. The arrival of Justinian saved Sydney’s European settlement from complete disaster. Her bounty however did not flow onto the First Australians whose situation had been made desperate by a plague of [English] locusts descending on their food resources, what little given was given grudgingly..

The second fleet, ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ brought Governor Arthur Phillip many sick and dying but few medicines, many mouths to feed but little food and immense problems with ‘certain officers’ of the New South Wales Corps.

The New South Wales Corps first of; ‘twenty-five (25)  regiments of British infantry [who] served in the colonies in the period 1790 to 187o. They fought in one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire, and for the first half of their stay were probably more frequently in action than the garrison of any other colony besides that of southern Africa’. Dr Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, The British Army in Australia, 1788-1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986.    

Six (6) months after the now infamous New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps arrived in Sydney Governor Arthur Phillip issued orders that precipitated the near annihilation of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

1790 – 13 December: General Orders, Captain-General, Governor Arthur Phillip RN to Marine Captain Watkin Tench; ‘Those natives who reside near the head of Botany Bay…put ten [10] to death…cut off, and bring back the heads of the slain…bring away two [2] prisoners to execute in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected. Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years ibid

At Tench’s urging Phillip issued amended orders; ‘bring in six [6] ….if that should be found impracticable, to put that number to death’.

1790 – 14 December: The raid of 14 December 1790 failed;  no bodies, no heads, no prisoners.

‘The governor resolved to try the fate of a second; and the ‘painful pre-eminence’ again devolved to me. the orders under which I [Tench] was commanded to act differing in no respect from the last‘. 

1790 – 22 December: The second raid, 22 December 1790, also failed; no bodies, no heads, no prisoners. But the retribution genie was out of the bottle.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries….These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1995.

Australia’s First Nations’ People, with laser accuracy, can pinpoint their near annihilation from smallpox in 1789 that drastically reduced their numbers in the Sydney area and to Governor Arthur Phillip’s orders of December 1790 that served as a template for; ‘one of the most prolonged frontier wars in the history of the British empire’.



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