‘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.


In 1763, in the earliest recorded deliberate release of a virus, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, British Commander-in-Chief in North America, authorized the distribution of smallpox-contaminated blankets to native Americans who were harassing European settlers around the garrison at Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania’. Crawford. op. cit.

Britain & the North American Indian Wars: Britain’s General Thomas Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst during the Indian Wars (Seven Years War) 1756-1763.

 ‘We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital, I hope it will have the desired effect’. Cited, Pox Americana: Professor Elizabeth A. Fenn, The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, 2001

In 1763 General Gage was implicated in the distribution of infected blankets to local Indian tribes At Fort Pitt now Pittsburgh.

“This act had the sanction of an impressive array of British officers, including Sir Jeffery Amherst, commander in chief at the time, and General Thomas Gage, who replaced Amherst and signed off on reimbursements for the “Sundries” used ” to convoy the Smallpox to the Indians”. Fenn. op. cit.

America – 1718-1775: Convict transportation to America: Britain between 1718 and 1775 exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) convicted criminals to America. Tied to twice yearly Assize and County Court Sittings convicts sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ were sold to plantation owners at regular ‘slave scrambles’.

Most men worked alongside African slaves shipped to America to labour on tobacco and cotton plantations. Most women prisoners were purchased as house-servants.

Lexington – 1775Revolution: In 1775 Britain’s American colonists rose in revolt against England the ‘mother country’. The colonists  were not as one.  With the catch-cry ‘no taxes without representation’ General George Washington led his Patriot rebels in the fight for an independent  America.

‘The [Patriot] Americans had the inestimable advantage of the presence of a commander-in-chief, who, whether or not he was a great general, was assuredly a great man’. H. E. Egerton, The Causes and Character of the American Revolution, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1923

Loyalists remained faithful to the Crown and, standing alongside English troops, fought their brothers and sisters.

Massachusetts – April 1775: ‘In mid-April Governor Gage at Boston received specific instructions…beyond his resources…to put down the rebellion in [that] colony’. But he decided to seize the main dump of rebel supplies in the village of Concord’ J.R. Christie, Crisis of Empire, Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, Edward Arnold, London, 1966

Boston: Gage ordered seven hundred (700) troops march from Boston to Concord, a distance of less than twenty (20) miles, to destroy a cache of rebel armaments. En-route, at Lexington, a small group of Patriots challenged the British.

Although both sides suffered causalities Gage’s ‘column‘ was able to push onto Concord ‘where the British carried out its operations’.

Concord: News of the Concord skirmish spread like wildfire. As the British pulled out for the return to Boston they were greatly outnumbered by local Patriot militia whose harassment very nearly turned an orderly retreat into a rout.

The British lost seventy-three (73) killed and one hundred and seventy-four (174) wounded. Causalities were high especially among Officers and NCO’s.

The  Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill, the first major engagement of the American Revolutionary war, ended in stalemate. Four thousand (4,000) British troops retreated to Boston.

An army of Massachusetts [Patriot] militia swarmed to the siege of Boston’.

Boston: The English were holed-up in Boston for just on a year. Among them were Marine Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins then a young marine subaltern.

‘Nothing instilled fear in American soldiers and civilians so much as the prospect that the British might use smallpox as a weapon of war…[General] Washington’s unheralded and little-recognised resolution to inoculate the continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war’. Professor Fenn. ibid.

Boston had a very intimate relationship with smallpox inoculation. As early as 1721-23 inoculation had been successfully practised there. George Washington used the year-long Siege of Boston to recruit local and overseas fighters, among them many experienced French Regulars.

In the ‘the most important decision of the war’  Washington, who bore the pock-marks of an earlier encounter with the virus, ordered his ‘Continental Army’ be inoculated (variolated) against smallpox.


‘Military and naval experience started new ideas of hygiene…Smallpox inoculation began to have significant results from about 1760’. Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, 1983.

Inoculation played a dual role; infect to protect – infect to destroy. In the British army, by the mid -18th century, smallpox inoculation using dried scab-matter, was established practice.

‘It is true that our surgeons 91788( had brought variolous matter in bottles’. Tench. ibid.

It is highly likely Major Robert Ross, commander of the Sydney marine garrison and Captain David Collins, the Sydney settlement’s judge-advocate, although no lawyer its senior law man, benefited from and brought with them knowledge the yin and yang of smallpox inoculation.

Not until 1798  was inoculation replaced by vaccination. Edward Jenner’s cowpox ‘lymph’ was safe and gave life-long immunity.


Boston Siege  – 1776: In order to save Boston from bombardment Washington permitted the British undertake an orderly evacuation by sea to Nova Scotia.

Paris – September 1783: Britain lost the War of American Independence. It ended formally in September 1783 with the Treaty of Versailles. Under its terms Britain lost her thirteen (13) colonies; North and South Carolina. Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

In addition under terms of the Treaty Britain lost the right to export to America those criminals reprieved death on condition they be banished ‘from the realm’.

England: After eight (8) years of war, three (3) years of inertia and Brexit-like argy-bargy; ‘His Majesty [George III] has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay [New Holland ] to replace America as its primary penal destination.

London – 21 August 1786: ‘Orders had been issued [6 August] for the transportation of six hundred and eighty (680) males and seventy (70) female convicts to New South Wales [with] two [2] companies of marines to form a military establishment’. Historical Records of New South Wales

Later these numbers were amended; four [4] companies of marines accompanied five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts with one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convict camp-followers.

But criminals with a difference. The mostly young male prisoners – rationed as ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ – were available for combat. See: A Riddle – When Was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it was the First Fleet 

‘When able Feign Inability, When deploying troops, Appear not to be’. Sun-Tzu Penguin ed. 2002

1787 – Portsmouth – May 13: Commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN Britain’s ‘First Fleet’, a large armed convoy of eleven (11) ships, with a complement of 1500 souls (one-half common criminals), sailed from England on the 13th May 1787 bound for Botany Bay, New Holland now Australia.

1788 – Botany Bay – January 18/20: Within thirty-six (36) hours all eleven (11) ships arrived in Botany Bay. See: Lieutenant William Dawes & the ‘Eternal Flame’

Exposed to fierce winds and cross-currents wide-open Botany Bay would be difficult to defend. There was insufficient fresh water to support such a large number and Captain Phillip deemed the site unsuitable for permanent settlement.

21 January: Next morning three (3) jolly boats were ‘hoisted’. Captain Phillip set off with senior officers and marine surveyors to explore the surrounding countryside.

Taking Captain Cook’s charts they rowed south as far as Sutherland before retracing. They travelled nine (9) miles (14km) north of the original beach-head.

Port Jackson:  Late that afternoon the towering headlands Cook had marked ‘Port Jackson’ were spotted. The entrance ‘a quarter-mile across’ revealed what Phillip described ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a Thousand Sail of the Line may ride in the most perfect Security’. 

Sydney Cove: The ‘First Fleet’ had found a home with a guaranteed supply of fresh water. Phillip settled on a ‘snug’ deep- water cove naming it for Lord Sydney the then Home Secretary. See: Botany Bay – Lord Sydney, Arthur Phillip & ‘Hush’ Christopher Robin Mark 2

Botany Bay – January 23: By evening on the 23rd the group were back in Botany Bay; ‘it was determined the evacuation…should commence the next morning’.

24 January:  But at dawn ‘consternationtwo (2) French ships La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay

Brest: Captain Phillip the ‘Secret Service’ present day MI 6 spy – knew them well. On the first day of August 1785 in foul weather he had watched Jean Francois La Perouse shepherd his command out of Brest Harbour.

Phillip was fully aware of La Perouse’s wide-ranging voyage of exploration. Modelled on those of Captain James Cook RN,  projected to take three (3) years, it was to include New Holland.

‘There are two kinds of error: those of commission, doing something that should not be done, and those of omission, not doing something that should be done. The latter are much more serious than the former’. Kennneth Hooper and William Hopper, The Puritan Gift, I.B. Tauris 2009

‘Phillip was alarmed’: Before leaving Sydney Cove on the 23rd he had failed to raise ‘English Colours’.

‘Raising the flag was one of the acts recognised as an assertion of a prior claim against other colonial powers eyeing off the same land’. Professor Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, ed, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017

Botany Bay, 24 January: The sight of Sirius gun-ports open her cannon at the ready, delivered La Perouse a message not to be ignored. That plus bad weather forced La Boussole and L’Astrolabe back out to sea.

But had they sailed north or south?

‘He [Phillip] ordered a party of marines to be sent to Point Sutherland to hoist English colours. He also stipulated that the [fleet’s] move to Port Jackson be kept secret, and that no one was to go on board the French ships’. Moore. ibid.

25th January: Phillip in HMS Supply prepared to make a desperate dash for Port Jackson but bad weather held up departure until after mid-day.

Should La Perouse ‘in the meantime’ make another attempt to enter Botany Bay; ‘he [Phillip] thought it wise to delay the fleet’s departure till the following day’.

Sydney Cove – 25 January:  By 7 pm on 25th Supply dropped anchor in Sydney Cove. ‘Here’ he wrote ‘ships can anchor so close to the shore that at a very small expense, quays may be made at which the largest ships may unload’.

26 January: Next morning at first light Phillip went ashore hoisted ‘English Colours’ and claimed Britain’s victory over France. Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘When Phillip planted the flag at Sydney Cove in 1788 he was not claiming the land for the British to take it away from the Aboriginal people but to make sure the French did not make the claim first’. Behrendt, Honest History Book. ibid.

Meantime the English fleet was preparing to make what turned out to be an extremely dangerous exit from Botany Bay – two ( 2) collisions and a near miss. Not until just on dark on 26 January was the entire fleet finally at anchor alongside HMS Supply.  Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

‘For the first time since creation the stillness [had] been interrupted by the rude sounds of the labourer’s axe, and the downfall of its ancient inhabitants; a stillness and tranquillity which from that day were to give way to the voice of labour…and the busy hum of its new possessors’. David Collins, Vol. 1, An Account of the Colony of New South Wales  

Australia’s new possessors disembarked the following day and driven by the lash under a merciless sun began the frenzied work of clearing a parade ground.

Sufficient tents erected to house the paltry number of ‘First Fleet’ women. One hundred and ninety (190) had survived the voyage together with thirty-one (31) marine wives and approximately fifty {50) children.

6 February: ‘At five o’clock, this morning, all things were got in order for the landing the whole of the women and three of the ships longboats came alongside us to receive them’. Bowes-Smyth, Surgeon Lady Penrhyn, cited Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Allen and Unwin, 1999

7 February 7 : By 11 am next day, surrounded by red-coats with fixed bayonets, all prisoners sat in a circle on the newly prepared parade ground.

At mid-day Captain-General, Governor Arthur Phillip, with all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ produced documents – Letters Patent – read an Act of Parliament – 27, Geo. 3, cap. 56 and proclaimed formal possession of New South Wales ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’. See: Why New Holland + Britain + America + India + France + Spanish South America = European Australia

Norfolk Island – February 14:  Phillip did not doubt La Perouse intended to claim the island for King Louis XVI. To stymie that ambition, in mid February 1788, he sent Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN with convicts and marines to establish a satellite settlement there.

Botany Bay – March 10: La Perouse rested his crews, repaired his ships and sailed for home on the 10th of March, never to be seen again. See: A Band of Brothers and Mortal Enemies


‘The latter part of 1788 and the first four [4] months of the following year was one of the darkest ever experienced in the history of the settlement’. Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery & Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, Currawong facsimile ed. 1981.

1788 – Sydney Cove: Governor Phillip estimated approximately 1500 Aborigines lived in the Sydney area. Overnight the population had doubled.

One ‘existing in a land at dawn of history and the invaders competed for the same resources but without equity. Traditional hook and vine versus trawling nets capable of hauling ‘four hundred weight of fish’.

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

The ‘Robinson Crusoes’ of the ‘First Fleet’ survived to the extreme detriment of Australia’s First Peoples whose food resources they stole. A Plague of Locusts – The Englishmen of the First Fleet

The English men, women and children of the ‘First Fleet’ arrived virtually empty-handed with empty bellies. They would live through thirty-six (36) months of ‘misery and horror’ of uncertainty and absolute isolation before a crumb or a word came from England. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve at Sydney Cove January 1788 to June 1790

Africa – 1788, October 2:  Still no relief supplies. Phillip could wait no longer. At the beginning of October 1788, HMS Sirius – Captain John Hunter RN departed Sydney for a perilous voyage to Cape Town to buy food and medicines from the Dutch.

Estimated to take six (6) months there and back many experienced naval officers had grave doubts HMS Sirius could survive the outward voyage through ‘islands of ice’ around tempestuous Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. See: Proximity Not Distance Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland

1789 – Sydney

1789 – January:  ‘At the end of January 1789, there was no single vessel in the harbour’. Bennett. ibid.

HMS Supply had taken supplies to Norfolk Island 1650 kms west of Sydney. Hopefully HMS Sirius had reached Africa safely.

‘Famine was approaching with gigantic strides…men abandoned themselves to the most desponding reflections and adopted the most extravagant conjectures’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961


March- 1789: ‘Six (6) marines, the flower of our battalion, were hanged by the public executioner…for at various times they robbed the public stores of flour, meat, spirits, tobacco and many other articles’. Tench. ibid.

Over many months a gang of seven (7) marines, using counterfeited keys, had systematically robbed the government store-house.  One (1) ratted, the other six (6) were ‘turned off’ at the end of a rope slung over a tree branch. See: The Ketch Connection

The hangman was James Freeman. The young convict had, in a Faustian bargain – hang or be hanged, accepted the role of executioner a month after disembarkation. See: Catch 22

‘It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles, but to infer that it [the 1789 smallpox epidemic] was produced from this cause was a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration’. Watkin Tench, ibid.

Just when it seemed nothing but death awaited, the stranded Englishmen made mad by ‘misery and horror’ of isolation, hunger, fear and despair, did an action born of ‘the most extravagant conjectures’ alter the supply-demand equation at Sydney?

April – 1789: A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but [Governor] Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community. People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998. 

Nothing in storage was secure at the time of the outbreak as an unknown number of counterfeit keys were still in circulation.

‘Not one case of the disorder [smallpox] occurred among the white people either afloat or on shore although there were several children in the settlement’. Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1810, Samuel Bennett, facsimile ed. 1981 

Smallpox affected only one (1) of two (2) available populations. Tench’s proposition ‘a supposition so wild’ suggests many in the settlement voiced just that opinion; ‘variolous matter…from England’ was the source of the outbreak.

‘But how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers could at one 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.


May – 1789: Was the smallpox outbreak of 1789 engineered to save the lives of Englishmen who, according to Samuel Bennett, were ‘sent to the end of the world by their government and abandoned to starvation’?

If so, how was it achieved when; ‘the chief redeeming feature [Sydney] was the absence of exotic disease’. Dr Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Pergamon Press, 1978

Watkin Tench’s rejection of a deliberate release as ‘wild supposition’ is consistent with what is known of his character. Captain Tench with Marine Lieutenant William Dawes were two (2) of very few ‘pearls’ scattered among modern Australia’s founding fathers. See: Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’

Major Robert Ross and Captain David Collins (Siege of Boston 1775) were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter; infect to protect, infect to destroy. They brought to Sydney both knowledge of the disease and the ramifications if smallpox was introduced into a ‘virgin’ population. See: An Evacuation: My Brother’s Keeper – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

Tench speculated; ‘how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’. Elapsed time renders evidence circumstantial. This holds as true for Sydney 1789 as it did for Professor Elizabeth Fenn in her award-winning expose – Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782. 

Aside from material evidence; ‘variolous matter in bottles’, there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Taken together they make ‘a ‘wild supposition’ very worthy ‘of consideration’. 


Why ‘Strangers’ ?  Eighteen (18) years earlier, in April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, the Royal Society’s respected botanist, aboard HMS Endeavour, put into Botany Bay.

Banks made much of the Aborigines’ preference for nakedness. Cook and Banks remarked on ceremonial and battle scarring but no mention was made of smallpox pitting.

1) The absence of pock-marks and, the cyclic nature of smallpox, indicates the 1789 outbreak was a ‘virgin’ event.

2) Statistical improbability; ‘not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people’ despite the abysmal nutritional status of both English and Indigenous populations at the time of the outbreak.

3) Disease presentation; sudden onset, pattern of distribution and mortality –  all ages in the Aboriginal community were affected.

‘The origins of the smallpox epidemic of 1789 were debated at the time and have continued to puzzle historians ever since….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 occupation of the Sydney region’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars 1788-1817, NewSouth Press, 2018

While the origin and nature of the 1789 smallpox epidemic is contested its devastating consequences cannot be disputed. Yet currently; ‘historians tend to avoid the subject as too complicated’ !!!!!

‘The extent to which it [decline in the Aboriginal population] came unintentionally from the white presence or from many 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 Magazine 543 January/ February, 2018



‘The colony was thrust largely upon its own resources in a wholly strange physical and social environment whose chief redeeming feature was the absence of exotic disease’. Dr Bryan Gandevia and Dr Simon Gandevia, Childhood Mortality and its social background in the first settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788-1792, Australian Paediatric Journal, 1975

Historians and commentators, within and without Australia, not only retreat from the diagnosis of smallpox, some have taken a giant leap, substitution – chicken-pox. DVD: Greatest Cities of the World, Griff Rhys Jones – Disc 2 Sydney/fwd 27 mins.

Yet nothing in the records suggest highly infectious chicken-pox was present in the Anglo adult or child population. What was present was ‘the horror of’ profound isolation and prolonged creeping starvation ‘[our] situation cannot be imparted even by those who have suffered under it’. Tench. ibid.


‘Captain John Hunter, commander of the Sirius, wrote in his journal initially the tribes of the Port Jackson region met the settlers of the first fleet with almost unrelieved hostility. The British strayed from their settlement only in armed parties’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, Cambridge University Press, 2001

1789 – May 8: HMS Sirius returned from Africa at the beginning of May 1789 with some medicines and ‘127,000 pounds of flour’ most intended for the kings ships and what could be spared for the settlement.

As Sirius sailed up the harbour Hunter was stunned to see Aboriginal bodies lying among the rocks.


‘Perhaps half of the [Aboriginal] population of the Port Jackson region died in a few months’. Hunter, cited Grey. op.cit.

To modern Australia’s shame little has been done to discover its origin. Ignored apart from the late Economics  Professor Noel G. Butlin – Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, 1982– and Craig Mear’s essay: The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society Volume 94, Part 1, June 2008.

Aside from the very convenient ‘Macassan Theory’, no responsibility has been ascribed for an event that had profound cultural and biological implications for Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples. A Very Convenient Theory – Smallpox – It Was The Macassans Stupid

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries…These raids had commenced by December 1790’.  Professor Bruce Kercher, An Unruly Child, A History of Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin

See: 1790 The Year of Living Dangerously (pending)

‘We will never know what might have occurred around Sydney in the 1790s if Aboriginal society had no been devastated by disease’. Stephen Gapps, ibid.

2020:  In light of what Covid has shown justice demands a rigorous investigation of the 1789 smallpox epidemic must be undertaken and all possibilities examined.






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