SMALLPOX – A BIOLOGICAL WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION – 1789

‘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

Botany Bay – January 1788: At 2.15pm on 18 January 1788 HMS Supply, first of a large armed expeditionary force 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.

Governor Phillip estimated local Aborigines numbered 1500, the fleet’s complement doubled the population.

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

Sydney Cove 1789:  Starving on the streets of Sydney and white survival.  In April 1789 viral smallpox wiped out 50% of Sydney’s Aboriginal families. See: Smallpox and Starvation Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

‘Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the [invading] European population’.  People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998

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‘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

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 kangaroo, fish and crustacean, primary sources of protein for local Aborigines. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney January 1788 to July 1790

In 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 into 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 Cape Town. Captain John Hunter RN chose Captain James Cook’s route for a passage that, there and back, was  estimated to take six (6) months.

The route took a leaky Sirius via the treacherous Southern Oceans with its ‘islands of ice’, around Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope,  to buy food and medicines from the Dutch. See: Proximity – Not Distance – Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland

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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  – April 1789 – upwards of fifty (50) under-nourished English children and infants, ten (10) some say as many as twenty (20). born on the voyage, should have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet the virus did not attack them.

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

Banks spent every daylight hour ashore.  Both 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 smallpox.

‘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 fleet’s eight (8) physicians make mention of pock-marking.

Familiar with the disease they had no hesitation diagnosing smallpox as 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.

Smallpox attacked only the Aboriginal community.  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.

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The virus was impossibly 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 of HMS Supply was diagnosed with smallpox, soon after Supply returned to Sydney from a relief-run to Norfolk Island. He died in May 1789.

Norfolk Island. There is no record that smallpox ever reached the island.

However there is a wealth of evidence of its devastation among Sydney’s Aboriginal families.  See: Smallpox A Lethal Weapon Boston 1775 – 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

At the time of the outbreak an unknown number of forged keys were in circulation. 

Motive:  white survival – Means:variolous matter in bottles’Opportunity: nothing in storage was secure.

EPILOGUE

‘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 

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

Neither does blaming ‘visiting Indonesian fishermen’.  See: A Very Convenient Theory  – It was the Macassans Stupid.  

The [smallpox] epidemic did not affect the European population’.

2020:  Along came Covid 19 and for April 1789  ‘inexplicably’  is  just not good enough.

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’.

ADDENDUM

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 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 ban on chemical weapons has been ignored. The world has 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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