‘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

Sydney Cove 1789:  While Indigenous Australians experienced viral ‘mass destruction’ in 1789 ‘inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population’.  People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998

Governor Arthur Phillip, on arrival in 1788, estimated local Aborigines to number 1500. The First Fleet’s complement of 1500 doubled that number. In April 1789 smallpox wiped out 50% of Aboriginal families in the Sydney area.

‘The body of the [Aboriginal] woman showed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death‘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, Sydney, 1961 See: Smallpox Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

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

Botany Bay – January 1788: At 2.15pm on 18 January 1788 HMS Supply, first of a large armed squadron of eleven (11) ships known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ with a complement of 1500 souls anchored in the entrance to Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

Captain Arthur Phillip RN the fleet commander had been assured more convicts and supplies would ‘follow shortly’. When nothing arrived it became clear survival would depend on appropriating fish and crustacean, the primary source of protein for local Aborigines. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney January 1788 to July 1790

In the summer months when fish was plentiful HMS Sirius and Supply’s trawling nets were deployed daily with as much as; ‘400 hundred weight of fish being taken up.’

Weeks passed to months still no ships. Winter came fish was scarce, two (2) populations – one indigenous one introduced – competed with increasing hostility for the same resources.

Africa – 1788,  2 October: HMS Sirius the fleet flagship departed Sydney on a perilous lone voyage to the Cape of Good Hope where Captain John Hunter RN was to buy food and medicines from the Dutch at Cape Town.

The passage there and back via the freezing southern oceans around Cape Horn was estimated to take six (6) months.

Sydney – 1789, April: ‘A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community. People of Australia. ibid.


The majority of the  First Fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) prisoners and their military guards came from densely populated London and urban areas where smallpox was endemic. Some though not all, by way of prior ‘natural’ infection, would have acquired life-long immunity.

‘An infectious disease which immunises those who survive, and which returns to a given community at intervals of five (5) to ten (10) years, automatically becomes a childhood disease…where a disease strikes a virgin community…old and young die indiscriminately’. William McNeill Plagues and People, Doubleday & Co. 1976

At the time of the outbreak – April 1789 – upwards of fifty (50) under-nourished English children and infants, ten (10) born on the voyage, should have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet the virus did not attack them.


Eighteen (18) years previously – 29 April 1770 – Captain James Cook with Joseph Banks, the noted Royal Society botanist, on HMS Endeavour’s voyage, entered the Botany Bay area and stayed nine (9) days.

Every daylight hour was spent ashore. Cook and Banks remarked on the Aborigines preference for nakedness and recorded detailed physical descriptions of men, women and children.

Ceremonial scarring, old and recent battle scars were noted, but neither man made mention of pock-marking, tell-tale evidence of previous exposure to the virus.

‘Since survivors from smallpox infection acquired life-time immunity, it follows that no epidemic could have occurred for the preceding 70-odd years before 1789, taking us back to near the beginning of the 18th century’. Professor Noel.G. Butlin, Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, Working Papers in Economic History, Australian National University, 1982.

Likewise First Fleet journals are full of references to the Aborigines preference for nakedness, yet none of eight (8) fleet physicians make mention of pock-marking.

Familiar with endemic smallpox they had no hesitation diagnosing the rampant illness; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’. Tench. ibid.

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, 1978.

Only the Aboriginal community was affected.  It expressed as William McNeill described when the ‘disease strikes a virgin community…old and young died indiscriminately’.

‘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’. Tench. ibid.

The virus was highly selective; ‘Not one case of the disorder 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


Brazil: Joseph Jefferies, born on New York’s Staten Island, Britain’s naval base during the American War of Independence 1775-1783, joined as crew of HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies in August – September 1787. See: Joseph Jefferies – From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One, Then There Was None

Joseph Jefferies was diagnosed with smallpox, soon after Supply returned to Sydney from a relief-run to Norfolk Island, where there was no smallpox. He died in May 1789.

Watkin Tench’s but how’ hangs in the air yet there is a wealth of evidence to investigate.. Was the ‘variolous matter for use by inoculation brought out from England in bottles’ used to inoculate as intended or was there a deliberate release? See: An Evacuation Saving Lieutenant William Collins

Motive:  white survival – Means:variolous matter’Opportunity: nothing in storage was secure as, at the time of the outbreak, an unknown number of forged keys were in circulation. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox – Siege Boston 1775 – Famine Sydney 1789. 

‘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 I, Vol. XX


What part did the ‘disastrous epidemic of smallpox‘ play in the ‘prospects’ of Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples ”too complicated’ just does not cut it.   

‘The extent to which it [decline in the Aboriginal population] came unintentionally from the white presence or from any 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 January-February, No. 543, Quadrant Magazine, Sydney, 2018 

Britain and Australia share a history – but history with a huge chunk missing. It is time to take the forensic knife to smallpox 1789. To echo Paul Keating’s Redfern speech ‘what if it had been done to us’.


In 1980 The World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated and vaccination was no longer required. Australia has a small emergency amount of smallpox vaccine reserved only for essential military and heath personnel.

In a contested decision two (2) sources of live virus were retained. One resides with the Russians at the State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology at Koltsovo. America’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia holds the other.

In real time the world has seen the ban on chemical weapons ignored. We have entered an era of moral turpitude. Once more the dark shadow of biological warfare hangs in the air. Smallpox may again overwhelm unprotected populations.

The mouse that roared; in 2001 the CSIRO – Australia’s principal animal research laboratory – using gene technology – produced a smallpox virus ‘unnaturally resistant to normal vaccines’. 





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