1789: ‘The body of the [Aboriginal] woman showed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death.

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 seems inexplicable’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961


1788: ‘Before leaving Botany Bay Phillip had messagespainted on the rocks of Bare Island near which the Fleet had been moored, to guide the ships which Phillip believed were following closely from England, around to Sydney Cove’. Bruce Mitchell, The Australian Story and Its Background, Cheshire Press, 1965

Portsmouth – 1787 –  13 May: A large expeditionary force, eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from England to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia. See: Apollo II, Fly Me To The Moon

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts …the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, ed. Hugh Oldham, Library of Australian History, 1990‘. See: All The King’s Men – Criminals of the First Fleet

Known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ one- half of its complement of 1500  were convicted criminals 580 male – 193 female.

The Navy Board’s mandated a; ‘weekly ration to the marine and male convicts after their arrival in New South Wales: 7 pounds of bread or 7 pounds of flour; 7 pounds of beef or 4 pounds of pork, 3 pints of pease, 6 ounces of butter, 1 pound of flour or one-half pound of rice’. Oldham. ibid.

Botany Bay – 1788 – 20 January:  Between 18-20 January 1788 the fleet anchored in Botany Bay. HMS Supply immediately played out her ‘seine’ trawling nets.

‘While the seine was hauling some of them [Aborigines] were present…No sooner were the fish out of the water than they began to lay hold of them as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own’. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal, Oxford City Press, 2011

Port Jackson – 21 January: Taking Captain Cook’s charts from 1770 Phillip accompanied by officers and marine surveyors set off in three (3) long-boats in the hope of finding ‘Port Jackson’.

Given Cook’s description of towering headlands no doubt a more defensible site.

Sydney Cove:: Having entered the port’s vast harbour Phillip settled on a protected deep-water cove cove he named Sydney after Lord Sydney the Home Secretary.

Botany Bay – 23 January: ‘The boat[s] returned on the evening of the 23d…it was determined the evacuation of Botany Bay should commence the next morning’. Tench. ibid.

24 January: ‘I rose at the first dawn… when the cry of “another sail” struck on my astonished ear’.

Two (2) French ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared off the entrance to Botany Bay. HMS Sirius’ deck- mounted cannon forced La Perouse back out into raging seas.

Sydney  – 25 January: The same seas kept Captain Phillip inside Botany Bay until the afternoon of the 25th January when aboard HMS Supply he quit Botany Bay anchoring in Sydney Cove at sunset.

26 January: At first light Phillip landed with a detachment of marines. A flagstaff was built and the Union Jack raised.

By nightfall the remaining English ships were riding alongside Supply. See: Australia Britain by a Short Half-Head – Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean- Francois La Perouse

‘Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after land, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form, until the 7th of February ‘. Tench,. ibid.

6 February, Sydney: By the end of the first week of February 1788 one thousand (1000) English men and two hundred and twenty-one (221) English women had landed.

Little did they know what lay ahead – absolute isolation, endless uncertainty and the ‘misery and horror’ of creeping starvation.   Abandoned and Left To Starve @ Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

It became clear European survival would depend on appropriating foods that for millennia had sustained Sydney’s First Peoples. See: A Plague of Locusts the Englishmen of the First Fleet

‘Our customary method was to leave Sydney Cove about four in the afternoon and go down the harbour and fish all night from one cove to another. We made 23 hauls of the seine in one night’. Jacob Nagle, The Nagle Journal 1775 to 1841, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York ed. John C. Dann, 1988

Livestock inventory; ‘7 horses, 2 bulls, 6 cows, 29 sheep, 19 goats, 74 pigs, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens and 5 rabbits’. Collins. ibid

1788 – March 13: ‘The commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5kg] per hundred-weight [50.8] kg of beef and 8 lb [3.5 kg] in the hundred-weight of pork (100 lb) of beef must be cut into 28 pieces and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces’. Marine Captain David Collins, An Account of the Colony of New South Wales, Ure Smith, Sydney.

May 15: Both bulls and all but one (1) cow wandered off into the bush. The lone cow, separated from her companions, went mad was shot and eaten.

June:  Winter,  fish left the harbour to spawn; ‘the fish caught were trifling…they [Aborigines] seem very badly off for food, not having any fish’.

July: ‘They are now  much distressed for food, few fish are caught & I am told that many of them appear on the Beach where the Boats go to haul the Seines, very weak and anxious to eat the small fish, of which they made no account in the Summer nor can we give them much assistance as very few fish are now caught, & we have many sick’. Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales.

August 22: ‘Our stock of flour bore no proportion to the salt beef and pork’. There was still some butter in the store-house but without flour no bread.

‘Here is spinach, parsley, a sort of broad beans, several unknown vegetable…a sort of green berries that are pronounced a most excellent anti-scorbutic [anti-scurvy] are gathered in abundance and a specie of sorrell, all of a peculiar fine acid’. Collins. ibid.

September: The nine (9) chartered vessels, Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Scarborough, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn, Borrowdale, Fishburn, Golden Grove  had left for the return to England by the end of September .

September 28:These people [Aborigines] last summer would neither eat shark nor stingray; but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe, obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment….they certainly are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney.

October:  One (1) lb of flour deducted from the ration.

Africa – 2 October:  HMS Sirius departed Sydney on a lone perilous voyage sailing via Cape Horn to Cape Town to buy urgently needed flour and medicines from the Dutch. See Proximity Not Distance Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland

 Sydney – November: With warmer weather fish returned to the harbour; ‘a party of natives threw several spears…the governor went to the spot…they were fired at; it having now become absolutely necessary to compel them to keep a greater distance from the settlement’. David Collins. ibid.

December:  Two(2)  populations competed for the same resources but without equity; ‘unabated animosity continues to prevail between the natives and us’.


‘Nine knotted leather strands at the end of a short whip; after the first few strokes the knots began to bite into the flesh at the triangle’. Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Sydney 1788-92, Allen & Unwin, 1999

1789 – January: The new year brought to the beleaguered settlement ever greater uncertainty and despair. Convict and soldier alike displayed anxiety and depression. A sharp rise in thieving from both each other and the government storehouse was met with escalating brutality.

Records show both men and women, tied half-naked to the back of a cart or at the triangle, were given 25, 75 – 150 – 300 – 500 – up to 700 lashes with the cruel cat- o’-nine-tails.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’. John Moore, The First Fleet Marines 1786 – 1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

Major Robert Ross’ attitude towards Governor Phillip bordered on open rebellion. His aggressive attitude permeated all ranks of the marine garrison. See: Rules of Engagement – Take Two – Governor Phillip & Major Ross

18 March: ‘A key was found broke in one of the locks at the public store house’.

Seven (7) marines using counterfeit keys had, over an extended period, systematically robbed the government store-house. One, thought to be the instigator, ratted.

27 March: ‘An awful and terrible example of justice took place….Six marines, the flower of our battalion, were hanged by the public executioner…for having at various times robbed the public stores of flour, meat, spirits, tobacco, and many other articles’.  Tench. ibid.

Public executioner’ James Freeman a young convict not yet twenty-one (21) had earlier had been caught in a Faustian bargain – kill or be killed. One (1) month after landing – 27th February 1788 – to escaped death Freeman accepted the role of hangman.. See: Catch 22 James Freeman 


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.

The majority of the fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) prisoners and their military guards came from densely populated London and urban centres of population where smallpox was endemic.

‘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 Mc Neill Plagues and People, Doubleday & Co. 1976

Some of Phillip’s ‘people’, though not all, would have by way of prior infection, acquired life-long immunity.

However upwards of fifty (50) under-nourished English children and infants would have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet none were infected.

Not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people either afloat or on shore although there were several children in the settlement’.  Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, facsimile edition, 1981


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

In 1770 aboard HMS Endeavour, Captain James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, noted Royal Society’s botanist, landed at Botany Bay and stayed nine (9) days.

‘Where a disease strikes a virgin community’. Both remarked on the Aborigines preference for nakedness and recorded detailed physical descriptions.

Ceremonial scarring, old and recent battle scars were noted but no mention was made of pock-marks, tell-tale evidence of a recent 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.

First Fleet journals are also full of references to the local Aborigines’ nakedness yet none of the fleet’s physicians mention pock-marks. Endemic in England they diagnosed a familiar illness; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’.

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.

 The 1789 viral outbreak was highly selective. Only Aboriginal families were affected. It expressed as William McNeill described ‘the old and young died indiscriminately’.

‘But a North American Indian…took the disease and died’. Bennett. op.cit.

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

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

Motive: survival – means:variolous matter’opportunity: nothing in storage was secure as an unknown number of counterfeit keys were still in circulation. See: Smallpox – A Lethal Weapon – Siege Boston 1775 – Famine Sydney 1789. 


‘For the Sydney people to lose around 50 per cent or more of their military capability in a few weeks was a crushing blow…Galgala [smallpox] determined the shape of the next few years of conflict, if not the outcome of the wars and was a critical factor in the British military of occupation of the Sydney region’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars 1788-1817, NewSouth Press, 2018

Norfolk Island: Smallpox was also a ‘critical factor’ in the supply-demand equation.

The following year March- April 1790 the settings were again implemented  when Governor Phillip, to save ‘his people’ from starvation, evacuated 50% of them to Norfolk Island.

1790 June –  ‘Flags Up  – ‘London on her stern’

No English ship nor a word was heard from England until the arrival of the second fleet  ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ in June 1790.

By then the  weekly ration issue; ‘to every child of eighteen months old and to every grown person two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease.

When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork and rise were brought with us from England: the pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.


1980:  in 1980 the  World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated vaccination ceased. However it was decided to retain two (2) reservoirs of live virus – one in Russia in Koltsovo in the Novosibirsk region of Siberia. The other in America, The centre of Disease Control, at Atlanta in the State of Georgia.

As an unintended consequence of eradication, except for the very few, political, military and security personnel, Australia has no vaccine available for mass immunisation.

In the present era of ‘rogue states’ and ‘terrorism’, the dark shadow of biological warfare in the shape of smallpox may again overwhelm the unprotected ‘other’. See: Smallpox  1789 A Very Convenient Theory – It Was The Macassans Stupid

2020: Covid 19: Paranoia and hoarding are symptoms typical of those exhibited in the 1940s by male conscious objectors who participated willingly in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

Dr. Ancel Keyes designed this World War II experiment to evaluate the effects of prolonged semi-starvation in Europe. It was used to determine what steps would be required to alleviate suffering and restore health to survivors of both Nazi concentration camps and civilian survivors of Allied carpet-bombing.

‘Captain John Hunter, commander of the Sirius, wrote in his journal that initially the tribes of the Port Jackson region met the settlers of the First Fleet with almost unrelieved hostility’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, the British Period 1788-1870, Cambridge University Press, 2001



‘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

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