‘Before leaving Botany Bay Phillip had messages painted 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

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: An expeditionary force, eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from England to invade the island continent of New Holland, now Australia in mid May 1787.

The armed convoy – known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’ – had a complement of fifteen hundred (1500) souls. One- half  were convicted  criminals 580 male – 193 female.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marine 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

1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: Between 18-20 January 1788 the ships anchored in Botany Bay. HMS Supply, first of the fleet to arrive, 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

21 January, Sydney Cove: Phillip accompanied by officers and marines set off in three (3) long-boats to find a more sheltered and defensible site. Phillip settled on a protected cove, Sydney Cove, about nine (9) miles (14km) north of Botany Bay situated deep within a vast harbour – Port Jackson.

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

 24 January: ‘I rose at the first dawn… when the cry of “another sail” struck on my astonished ear’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

Two (2) French ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, under command of Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared off the entrance to Botany Bay.

HMS Sirius’ deck- mounted cannon forced La Perouse back out into what by then were raging seas.

25 January, Sydney Cove: The same seas kept Captain Phillip inside Botany Bay until the afternoon of the 25th January when he quit Botany Bay in HMS Supply anchoring in Sydney Cove at 7pm that evening.

26 January, Sydney: At first light Phillip landed with marines. A flagstaff was built and the Union Jack raised. Just on 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

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. Abandoned and Left To Starve @ Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

After the nine (9) chartered vessels, Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Scarborough, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn, Borrowdale, Fishburn, Golden Grove returned to England they lived in absolute isolation; ‘endless uncertainty’…misery and horror’ of creeping starvation.

Not another English ship nor a word was heard from England until the arrival of ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ in June 1790. By that time (June 1790) 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.


1788 – January: ‘The 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.

But all did not go to plan. Many breeding animals purchased at Cape Town did not survive the long sixty-eight (68 ) day last leg – Africa to Sydney. See: Apollo II, Fly Me To The Moon

Goats and pigs did better than sheep. Many sheep, fed dry fodder on the passage from Cape Town, when turned out onto fresh grass,  developed acidosis and died.

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: Inventory of livestock; ‘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.

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.

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

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

 July 2: ‘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.

‘Phillip’s people’ continued to gather; ‘many salutary herbs that made a wholesome drink and of great use to our sick.

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.

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 to spread it on.

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 2, Africa: 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.

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

November: Fish returned with warmer weather and; ‘unabated animosity continues to prevail between the natives and us’.

‘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.

‘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


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

‘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

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

Paranoia and hoarding what little food was available were common. These 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 the Allied carpet-bombing of Europe’s civilian populations.

‘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. Under Ross dissension permeated all ranks of the marine garrison. See: Rules of Engagement – Take Two – Governor Phillip & Major Ross

March 18: ‘A key was found broke in one of the locks at the public store house’. Seven (7) marines using counterfeit keys had systematically robbed the government store-house over an extended period.

One (1) marine, thought to be the instigator ratted, six (6) were sentenced to death.

March 27: ‘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.

James Freeman a young convict not yet twenty-one (21) had earlier been caught in a Faustian bargain – kill or be killed. One (1) month after landing – 27th February 1788 – to avoid hanging Freeman accepted the role of ‘public executioner’. 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 areas 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, though not all by way of prior infection, would have acquired life-long immunity. 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.

‘A virgin community’: Previously, 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 before sailing north and near disaster on the Great Barrier Reef.

Cook and Banks 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 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.

First Fleet journals are full of references to Aborigines nakedness yet none of the fleet’s five (5) physicians made mention of pock-marking. Familiar with smallpox they diagnosed the rampant illness; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’ to be smallpox.

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

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

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

Joseph Jefferies born on New York’s Staten Island joined as crew of HMS Supply when, August -September 1787, the ‘First Fleet’ put into Brazil for supplies. 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.

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

‘Critical factor’ 

‘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


1980:  Vaccination ceased when the  World Health Organisation declared the smallpox virus eradicated. 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 including some military, 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



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