‘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

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

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

See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney January 1788 to June 1790

Captain Arthur Phillip RN the fleet commander was told more convicts and supplies would ‘follow shortly’ from England when no supply ships arrived it became clear survival would depend on appropriating fish and crustacean, the local Aborigines’ primary source of protein.

Fish was plentiful during Sydney’s summer months and HMS Sirius and Supply’s trawling nets were deployed daily, as much as ‘400 hundred weight of fish being taken up…’

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

1788 – 2 October, Africa: 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 via the southern oceans and Cape Horne was estimated to take six (6) months.


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, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998.

‘It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous (smallpox) matter in bottles’. Tench ibid.

1789 – April,  Sydney: ‘The body of the [Aboriginal] woman showed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1961

The majority of the 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 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 with no acquired immunity should have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet the virus did not attack them.

Previously – 28 April 1770 – Captain James Cook with Joseph Banks, the noted botanist on HMS Endeavour’s voyage, entered Botany Bay area and stayed nine (9) days.

The Englishmen spent every daylight hour the English spent ashore. Both Cook and Banks remarked on the Aborigines preference for nakedness and recorded detailed physical descriptions of both men and women. Ceremonial scarring and old and recent battle scars were noted but no mention was made of pock-marks, 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 Aborigines’ nakedness, yet none of five (5) fleet physicians in Sydney mention pock-marking. Familiar with smallpox they diagnosed the rampant illness; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’ to be smallpox.

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.

Sydney 1789 the smallpox virus was highly selective – only the Aboriginal community was affected – it expressed as William McNeill described when the ‘disease strikes a virgin community…the old and young died indiscriminately’.

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

1789 – May, Sydney: Joseph Jefferies, born on New York’s Staten Island, joined as crew of HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ put into Brazil for supplies in August 1787. Diagnosed with smallpox he died at Sydney in May 1789. See: Joseph Jefferies – From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One, Then There Was None

‘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.

Was the ‘variolous matter for use by inoculation brought out from England in bottles’ used to inoculate as intended, did it  escape to infect the indigenous population or was there a deliberate release?

Motive: 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. 


2019- January, February: ‘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 

Watkin Tench’s but how’ question hangs in the air. The smallpox outbreak of 1789; resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community’ and it is time to take the forensic knife to smallpox 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

Britain and Australia share a history – but its history with a huge chunk missing. Britain must take its place at Australia’s table of recognition of harm done in the name of Empire.

To echo Paul Keating’s Redfern speech; ‘what if it had been done to us’. We must investigate the wealth of available evidence  and ‘too complicated’ does not cut it. See: Smallpox & Starvation – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat


In 1980 when The World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated and vaccination was no longer required. It was however decided to retain two (2) source of the live virus. 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.

Australia has a small emergency amount of smallpox vaccine reserved for essential military and heath personnel.

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

2019:  The Australian Mouse That Roared. In 2001 the CSIRO – Australia’s principal research  organisation – using gene technology produced a virus ‘unnaturally resistant to normal vaccines’. 





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