‘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. 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’. Professor Dorothy H. Crawford, The Invisible Enemy, Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Britain & the North American Indian Wars: Britain’s General Thomas Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst during the Indian Wars he was implicated in the distribution of blankets infected with smallpox, specifically among Indian tribes at Fort Pitt, now Pittsburgh.

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

1718-1775: Convict transportation – England to America: Tied to twice yearly Assize and County Court Sittings, between  1718 and 1775 Britain exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) of her convicted criminals to America where they were sold in regular ‘slave scrambles’ mainly to plantation owners.

Most men worked alongside Negro slaves shipped in from Africa to labour in the tobacco fields while women prisoners were in the main purchased as house-servants.

1775 – Revolution: Britain’s American colonists rose in revolt against the ‘mother country’ in 1775. The colonists however were not as one. Loyalists led by Governor, General Thomas Gage remained faithful to the Crown and fought alongside English troops.

‘The 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 

General George Washington led his Patriot rebels in the fight for an independent America.

1775 – April, Massachusetts: ‘In mid-April Governor Gage at Boston received specific instructions to put down the rebellion in [that] colony…[were] beyond his resources. 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

From Boston Gage sent about seven hundred (700) troops on a march of less than twenty (20) miles to Concord with orders to destroy a cache of rebel armaments. En-route, at Lexington, a small group of Patriots challenged the British. In the skirmish  there were causalities on both sides but the ‘column‘ was able to push onto Concord ‘where the British carried out its operations’.

News of Concord spread like wildfire and as the British pulled out for the return to Boston they were now greatly outnumbered by local Patriots. Their retreat was placed under constant harassment and very nearly turned into a rout. The British lost  seventy-three (73) killed and one hundred and seventy-four (174) wounded.

The Battle of Bunker (Breeds) Hill, the first major engagement of the American war, ended in stalemate. Four thousand (4,000) British troops retreated to Boston again English causalities were high including many Officers and NCO’s. J.R. Christie says; ‘an army of Massachusetts militia swarmed to the siege of Boston’.

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

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

Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins, then a young subaltern were among the English soldiers involved in the siege that lasted a year (1775-6). It is highly likely Major Robert Ross, in 1788 commander of the Sydney marine garrison and, Captain David Collins as judge-advocate the Sydney settlement’s senior law-man, benefited from inoculation against the smallpox virus.

‘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.

George Washington used the year long Boston siege to recruit local and overseas fighters; he armed them, trained them and inoculated them against smallpox.

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the War of American Independence. It ended formally with the Treaty of Versailles (Paris) signed in September 1783. 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, Virginia along with the right to export her convicted criminals to America.


1786 – 6 August, London – New Holland: After eight (8) years of war and three (3) years of inertia‘His Majesty [George III] has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay [New South Wales]’ to replace America as its primary penal destination.

1786 – 21 August 1786, London: ‘Orders had been issued 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

The numbers were later amended; four [4] companies of marines, five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts and one hundred and ninety-three (193) female convict camp-followers. But these were convicts with a difference; all male prisoners rationed as; ‘troops serving in the West Indies’ were available for combat.

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

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: In a stunning feat of seamanship all eleven (11) ‘First Fleet’ ships arrived at Botany Bay within thirty-six (36) hours between 18-20 January 1788.

The bay wide-open and difficult to defend also exposed the fleet’s vessels to fierce winds. Even more important, there was not enough fresh water to support such a large number and Captain Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 21 January: Three (3) long boats were deployed next day and Captain Phillip with some senior officers set off to  explore the surrounding countryside.

After first sailing south as far as Sutherland the boats retraced and sailed nine (9) miles (14km) north of the original beach-head. Early that afternoon the Englishmen entered what Phillip described as; ‘the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most security’.  

1788 – 23 January: Late afternoon of the 23rd they were back at Botany Bay with good news the ‘First Fleet’ had found a home at Port Jackson and a cove where; ‘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’ and a running stream guaranteed an unending supply of fresh water.

1788 – 24 January, Botany Bay: La Bousolle and L’Astrolabe, two (2) ships flying the French flag appeared in the entrance to Botany Bay, ships Arthur Phillip knew well.

In August 1785, he had watched them depart Brest Harbour on a voyage of exploration, modelled on those Captain James Cook RN and projected to take three (3) years. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head: Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean-Francois La Perouse

The sight of Sirius cannon at the ready delivered La Perouse a message he could not ignore, that plus bad weather, forced La Boussole and L’Astrolabe south to seek safety and shelter at Sutherland.

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

1788 – 25 January: Aboard HMS Supply Phillip quit Botany Bay for Sydney Cove; ‘in the meantime he thought it wise to delay the fleet’s departure till the following day’.

Supply dwarfed by the towering sandstone bluffs of Sydney Heads moved up the harbour anchoring in Sydney Cove about 6 pm that evening.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney: Next day at first light, while the English ships were preparing to make what turned out to be a dramatic exit from Botany Bay, Captain Phillip hoisted ‘English Colours’ at Sydney Cove and proclaimed Britain’s victory over France. See: A Riddle – When Was an invasion fleet not an invasion fleet? When it was the First Fleet 

‘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.

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’. Professor Larissa Behrendt, Settlement or Invasion, The Honest History Book, ed, David Stephens & Alison Broinowski, New South Publishing, 2017 

When at 7 pm – 26 January – the entire fleet finally anchored alongside Supply, they were greeted by the Union Jack flying from a hastily erected flagstaff. See: Australia – Britain By A Short Half-Head

1788 – 27-28 January: As male convicts disembarked and began to prepare a settlement Marine Captain David Collins reflected; ‘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  

The work progressed until a parade ground was cleared and there were sufficient tents to house most of the paltry number of  ‘First Fleet’ women.

1788 – 6 February: ‘At five o’clock, this morning, all things were got in order for the landing the whole of the women [193 prisoners], 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

1788 – 7 February: By 11 am the following morning all prisoners were sat in a circle on the newly prepared parade ground where at mid-day Captain-General, now Governor Arthur Phillip with all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ read the Act of Parliament – 27, Geo. 3, cap. 56, together with Letters Patent and took formal possession of New South Wales ‘from Cape York…to South Cape’.

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

The Englishmen arrived virtually empty-handed with empty bellies, they would have to wait thirty-six (36) months of ‘misery and horror’ before they heard a word or received  a morsel of food from England. See: Abandoned and Left To Starve at Sydney Cove January 17888 to June 1790

In January 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip, estimated approximately 1500 Aborigines lived in the Sydney area. Overnight the population had doubled.

Two (2) populations – one ‘existing in a land at dawn of history’, the other introduced – the Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ abandoned, and left to fend for themselves, lived side-by-side competing for the same resources but without equity;. one with traditional hook and line, the other with trawling nets capable of hauling ‘four hundred weight of fish’.

Marooned the ‘Robinson Crusoes’ – men, women and children – 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 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.

1789 – Sydney:

‘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

Captain Tench opens the door onto a desperate Sydney circa 1789 and Samuel Bennett says;‘at the end of January 1789, there was no single vessel in the harbour’. 

Where were HMS Sirius and HMS Supply?

HMS Supply had taken supplies to Norfolk Island where a satellite settlement had been established in mid February 1788 and  HMS Sirius was on the high seas.

1788 – 2 October, Africa: To save the settlement from starvation Governor Phillip ordered HMS Sirius sail to Africa. At the beginning of October 1788 Sirius had departed Sydney for the Cape of Good Hope on a perilous voyage estimated to take more than six (6) months. At Cape Town Captain John Hunter RN was to buy urgently needed food and medicines from the Dutch.

Major Robert Ross commander of the marine garrison and Marine Captain David Collins knew all about ‘extravagant conjectures’.

[Sydney] ‘The British strayed from their settlement in armed parties…initially the tribes of the Port Jackson region met the settlers of the first fleet with almost unrelieved hostility. Once smallpox entered the equation this changed. Perhaps half of the [Aboriginal] population of the Port Jackson region died in a few months. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, 2001

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

1789 – March, Sydney: ‘ 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 a considerable period the marines used counterfeit keys to rob the government store-house so at the time of the smallpox outbreak nothing in storage was secure as an unknown number of these keys were still in circulation.

1789 – April, Sydney: ‘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.

‘A supposition so wild’, suggests at the time of the outbreak, many in the settlement voiced just that opinion; ‘variolous  matter…from England’ was the source of the outbreak.

1789 – April,  Sydney: 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. 

Smallpox affected only one (1) of two (2) available populations. Of the English population approximately sixty (60) were malnourished children. Most had no prior exposure to the virus and as such were as vulnerable as Sydney’s Eora Peoples, yet all Europeans including children escaped its ravages.

‘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; but a North American Indian…took the disease and died’. Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1810, Samuel Bennett, facsimile ed. 1981

1789 – May, Sydney: Joseph Jefferies was that ‘North American Indian’. Born on New York’s Staten Island the young adventurer joined as crew of HMS Supply when the fleet put into Rio for supplies in August 1787. Physicians diagnosed smallpox Joseph Jefferies died at Sydney in early May 1789. See: Joseph Jefferies: From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One Then There Was None 

1789 – May, Sydney: Was the smallpox outbreak of 1789 engineered to save the lives of Englishmen who, according to Samuel Bennett, had been ‘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 was the absence of exotic disease’. Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Pergamon Press,  1978

Major Robert Ross and Captain David Collins, were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter; infect to protect, infect to destroy.

During the Siege of Boston it is highly likely both men benefited from smallpox inoculation and brought to Sydney knowledge of the disease and the ramifications if introduced into a ‘virgin’ population, those without acquired immunity via prior exposure or inoculation.. See: An Evacuation: My Brother’s Keeper – Saving Lieutenant William Collins

‘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.

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 earliest founding fathers. See: Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’

Tench speculated; ‘how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’.

Elapsed time renders evidence circumstantial and 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, when taken together, they make ‘a ‘wild supposition’ worthy ‘of consideration’. 

1) Why ‘Strangers’ – Twenty (20) years earlier, April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks the Royal Society’s botanist, in HMS Endeavour, put into Botany Bay.

While remarking on ceremonial and battle scarring neither made mention of of smallpox pitting on naked Aborigines. In 1789  ‘First Fleet’ physicians found no pock-marking that is no evidence of smallpox in the intervening period 1770-1789.

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

3) Disease presentation; sudden onset and pattern of distribution; ‘although there were several [white] children in the settlement’ none were infected and the indiscriminate pattern of mortality, all ages were affected in indigenous families.

While the origin and nature of the 1789 smallpox epidemic is contested its devastating consequences cannot be disputed.

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. See: G is for Genocide

To modern Australia’s shame, apart from the late 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, no investigation, let alone rigorous epidemiological examination of the 1789 smallpox epidemic, has been undertaken; in fact it is said; ‘historians tend to avoid the subject as too complicated’!!!!!



‘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

Currently 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.

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

2018: And then there is this.

2018 – January/ February: ‘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 543, Quadrant Magazine, Ltd. Sydney, 2018  See: A Very Convenient Theory – Smallpox – It Was The Macassans Stupid. 




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