‘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 authorised 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, Invisible Enemies, Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

1763 – America: British General Thomas Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst during the Indian Wars. In 1763 North American Indian tribes united under Chief Pontiac and moved against the British.

At first their efforts were successful but later, when laying siege to Fort Pitt, they were out-gunned and not only out-gunned: “We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital, I hope it will have the desired effect”.

General Gage was implicated in the distribution of ‘smallpox-contaminated blankets’ among the Indian tribes ‘harassing’ the British 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”. Professor Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1776-1782, 2001.


1717 -1775: England to America – convict transportation: Between the period 1717 to 1775 Britain exported approximately fifty thousand (50,000) of her convicted criminals to America. They were sold on the auction block at regular ‘slave scrambles’, mainly to plantation owners.

Most male convicts served the term of their sentence alongside slaves shipped in from Africa to work the tobacco fields while women prisoners worked on farms or as house servants.

1775 – Revolution: At Lexington in 1775 America’s Patriot colonists rose in revolt against Britain the ‘mother country’. The colonists however were not as one.

Loyalists, led by General Thomas Gage initially, remained faithful to the Crown and fought alongside English troops. Patriot rebels, led by General George Washington, fought for an independent America.

1775 – Lexington: The Battle of Bunker – Breed’s Hill – in 1775 was the first major engagement of the Revolutionary War. For the British the battle ended in their retreat to Boston.

1776 – Boston: Four thousand (4000) English troops, among them Marines Lieutenant Robert Ross and David Collins, then a young subaltern, were trapped for just on a year during General Washington’s siege of  Boston.

‘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

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

‘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 important decision of the war’. Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana. ibid

1775-1776: The Siege of Boston lasted a year. George Washington, commander of America’s Patriots, used the time to recruit local and overseas fighters. He armed them, trained them and inoculated them against smallpox.

1783 – September, Paris: Britain lost the American War of Independence (1775-1783). The conflict ended formally with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 3rd September 1783. Under its terms Britain no longer retained her thirteen (13) ‘middle colonies’ and lost the right to ship convicted criminals to America.


1786 – 6 August, London: After eight (8) years of war and a number of disastrous attempts to transport prisoners to Africa then three (3) years of inertia; ‘His Majesty [George 111] has thought advisable to fix upon Botany Bay‘ to replace America as its preferred penal destination.

1786 – 21 August, London: ‘Orders had been issued for the transportation of six hundred and eight males and seventy female convicts to New South Wales [with] 160 private marines…a suitable number officers and non-commissioned officers [who] shall proceed in the ship of war [Sirius]’.  

Prisoner numbers were amended to five hundred and eighty-three (583) male convicts and one hundred and ninety-three (193) female prisoner, camp-followers.

The marine detachment numbered approximately two hundred and forty-five (245) and two (200 ) hundred Royal Naval personnel, crewed HMS Sirius and HMS Supply.

Prior the American Revolution Britain sold the ‘service’ of convicted criminals sentenced ‘for transportation’ to merchants who shipped them to America. Post the commencement of hostilities in 1775 under legislation, the Hulks Act 1776, transportation of convicts ‘out of the realm’ became a very different animal.

Under the Hulks Act criminals sentenced for transportation ‘beyond the seas’ were deemed ‘servants of the Crown’ their service ‘was for the State’.

‘In determining the daily ration no  distinction was drawn between the marines and the [male] convicts’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1990

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth:  The ‘First Fleet’, as it is known in Britain and Australia, a large squadron of eleven (11) ships with a complement of 1500 souls, sailed from England for Botany Bay on 13th May 1787. All male convicts were rationed as combatants; ‘troops serving in the West Indies’.

Four hundred and forty (440) merchant seaman crewed six (6) troop transports, Alexander, Prince of Wales, Friendship, Scarborough, Lady Penrhyn, Charlotte and three (3) store-ships Golden Grove, Fishburn , Borrowdale.

Since the days of Oliver Cromwell, fearful of home-grown revolution, England had no standing army;‘impressment’ made up the deficit in times of stress.

Legislated ‘servants of the Crown’ male prisoners of the ‘First Fleet’ were  available for combat. With an overwhelmingly male complement – 1300 men and 200 women – the ‘First Fleet’ was a formidable invasion fleet.

1788 – 18/20 January, Botany Bay: All eleven (11) vessels reached Botany Bay within thirty-six (36) hours between the 18-20th January 1788.

1788 – 23 January, Botany Bay: Comte Jean-Francoise La Perouse in La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, two (2) French ships Captain Arthur Phillip RN knew well, appeared at the entrance to Botany Bay. Britain, by a short half-head, had won the race for New Holland. See: Arthur Phillip – The Spy Who Never Came In From The Cold

Botany Bay, wide-open and difficult to defend, also exposed ships to vicious tidal cross-currents and unpredictable wind shifts. Together with a shortage of fresh water for such a large number Phillip deemed Botany Bay unsuitable for permanent settlement.

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: Phillip ordered the English fleet sail nine (9) miles (17 km) north to Port Jackson where he sighted a run of sweet, fresh water and named The Tank Stream.

Importantly towering sand-stone bluffs – Sydney Heads –  provided a perfect defensive position from where to guard the military garrison. Phillip wrote; ‘a thousand Sail of the line’ could anchor safely in Sydney Cove deep within Port Jackson.

1788 – 14 February, Norfolk Island: Governor Phillip was fearful La Perouse on leaving Botany Bay would occupy Norfolk Island, 1,500 km to the west of Sydney. In order to stymie France’s burning ambition to occupy a situation in the southern ocean he sent Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN with convicts and marines to establish a satellite settlement there.

1788 – 26 January, Sydney Cove: When the ‘First Fleet’s complement of 1500 souls disembarked at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 they were hungry and they came virtually empty-handed.The long last leg of the voyage, sixty-eight (68) days from Cape Town to Sydney, had taken a heavy toll of the fleet’s limited supply of food.

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

Captain, now Governor Arthur Phillip estimated, in January 1788, 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’, one introduced, marooned and callously left to fend for themselves, lived side-by-side competing for the same resources but without equity.

Aborigines with traditional hook and line and Englishmen using trawling nets capable of hauling ‘four hundred weight of fish’.

Governor Phillip had been assured ships with more prisoners and supplies would ‘shortly follow’ him to Botany Bay.When none had arrived by August 1788 he ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare Sirius for a solo voyage to Africa

1788 – 2 October, Cape Town: HMS Sirius sailed through Sydney Heads and her commander Captain John Hunter RN set course, via icy southern oceans and Cape Horn for Cape Town, where he was to buy food and medicines from the Dutch. A voyage estimated to take six (6) months.


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 Press, facsimile ed. 1981.

1789 – January , Norfolk Island: To relieve pressure on Sydney’s resources Lieutenant Ball sailed HMS Supply to Norfolk Island with some convicts and marines.


‘April is the  cruellest month’. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

At Sydney the ‘Robinson Crusoes’ of the ‘First Fleet’ survived to the extreme detriment of Australia’s First Peoples whose foods they stole.

‘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 [April 1789] 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,

Marine Captain Watkin Tench opens a door on desperate Sydney 1789. Just when it seemed nothing but death awaited stranded Englishmen made mad by isolation, hunger and despair, did a deliberate action born of; ‘the most extravagant conjectures’ alter the supply-demand equation at Sydney?

‘Famine was approaching with gigantic strides…men abandoned themselves to the most desponding reflections and adopted the most extravagant conjectures…It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles but to infer that it was produced from this cause was a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration’. Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

‘A supposition so wild’ is clear evidence that, at the time of the outbreak, many in the settlement voiced just that opinion; ‘variolous matter in bottles’ brought from England was the source of the epidemic.

1789 – April, Sydney: ‘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

Tench’s rejection of the notion – a deliberate release – is consistent with what is known of his character. Tench was one of very few ‘pearls’ scattered among modern Australia’s founding fathers.

1789 – April, Sydney: At the time of the outbreak – April 1789 – an unknown number of counterfeit keys were in circulation so nothing in storage was secure.

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.

A gang of seven (7) marines had a convict blacksmith fashion keys so they could rob government stores. One (1) key broke off in the lock. The marines were arrested, one (1) ratted on the others, the others were hanged.


‘Not one [1] case of the disorder occurred among the white people’.

Marine Major Robert Ross, commander of the Sydney Garrison, and Marine Captain David Collins, the settlement’s chief law officer, were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter and its ability to infect – protect, infect – destroy. It is highly likely, during the Siege of Boston in 1776, both men benefited from routine smallpox inoculation.

In 1789 smallpox afflicted only one (1) of two (2) available population.

‘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’. Bryan Gandevia and Simon Gandevia, Childhood Mortality and its social background in the first settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788- 1792, Australian Paediatric Journal, 1975.

1789 April, Sydney: Ross and Collins brought to Sydney not only knowledge of the disease but also of the ramifications if the virus was introduced into a ‘virgin’ population; those without prior exposure, therefore without acquired immunity.

Elapsed time renders evidence circumstantial. This held true for Professor Elizabeth Fenn in her award-winning expose – Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782, but that did not deter her pursuing the truth.

To Australia’s shame no rigorous epidemiological investigation of the 1789 smallpox epidemic has been undertaken.

Apart from the late Professor Noel G. Butlin, ‘Close Encounters of the Worst Kind’, 1982 and Craig Mear – ‘The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, volume 94, Part 1, June 2008, the outbreak had been either ignored or treated as an anomaly.

‘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.

Smallpox was endemic in 18th century England. ‘First Fleet’ physicians familiar with the disease had no difficulty making their diagnosis. Tench speculated; ‘but how a disease to which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’. 

The smallpox virus; infection confers life-long immunity on those who survive the affliction but leaves a lasting legacy – disfiguring pock marks. In 1788 no Aboriginal of any age in Sydney’s various Aboriginal communities displayed pock-marking.

Twenty (20) years earlier, in April 1770 Lieutenant James Cook RN in HMS Endeavour put into Botany Bay. Joseph Banks the celebrated Royal Society’s botanist accompanied James Cook on that voyage. Banks obsessed over the Aborigines’ preference for nakedness.

Cook and Banks both noted ceremonial and battle scarring but neither made mention of pock-marks nor did physicians of the ‘First Fleet’ in 1788. An absence of pitting on older Aborigines, indicates no smallpox outbreak had occurred in the intervening years 1770 to 1789.

‘Smallpox…especially afflicted children between three [3] months and five [5] years old’. Liza Pickard, Dr Johnson’s England, Phoenix, Orion Press, 2003

The  smallpox virus, similar to many virus, has a cyclic profile. When it reappears it is first and foremost ‘a disease of children’. From children it spreads via close family members into the wider community and infects those without ‘acquired immunity’ from a previous infection.

‘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 ed. 1981 

At Sydney in 1789 there were approximately sixty (60) malnourished English children, the majority without prior exposure, they were as vulnerable to smallpox as Sydney’s Eora Peoples yet all escaped its ravages – a statistical improbability.

But a North American Indian took the disease and died’. Bennett. ibid.

Joseph Jefferies was that ‘North American Indian’. In August 1787 the young adventurer, born on New York’s Staten Island, joined the crew of HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies.

Joseph Jefferies, from the time HMS Supply left Rio, lived in the midst of ‘white people’ both on shore and in cramped conditions on his ship. He was diagnosed with smallpox and died in May 1789. See: Joseph Jefferies, From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town

‘Not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people’. Bennett. ibid.

Naturally occurring immunity without inoculation advances smallpox 1789 from statistical improbability to statistically impossible.

Aside from the very convenient ‘Macassan Theory’, no responsibility has been ascribed for an event that had and, continues to have, profound cultural and biological implications for Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

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 minutes.

There is no record of adults or children in the Anglo population having developed highly infectious chicken-pox. Chicken-pox would have swept through the entire English community and would not have gone un-remarked in the records.

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’ ?

And if so, how was it achieved when on arrival; ‘the chief redeeming feature was the absence of exotic disease’. Dr Bryan Gandevia, Tears Often Shed, Pergamon Press, 1978.


‘Here on the summit of the hill [South Head] every morning from daylight until the sun sunk, did we sweep the horizon, in the ship of seeing a sail…From the intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth’.

The misery and horror of such a situation cannot be imparted, even by those who have suffered under it’.  Watkin Tench, Sydney First Four Years. ibid.

‘The misery and horror’ of isolation and starvation in the English population and ‘the misery and horror’ of smallpox among the Eora Peoples are inextricably linked.


In England Edward Jenner’s first paper on the use of cow-pox as a vaccine to prevent smallpox was rejected by the Royal Society in 1798. The following year Jenner published privately at his expense.

1804: Sydney: Dr Thomas Jamison a First Fleet surgeon returned to Sydney from England aboard the Coromandel with a supply of ‘Jenner’s lymph’ for vaccination. Medical centres were established and parents of all ‘colonial children’ encouraged to have them vaccinated.

1804 – May, Sydney:Dr John Harris advised parents of children belonging to the military that he would vaccinate them at his home on Tuesdays and at his house in Parramatta on Thursdays. Gandevia. ibid.







Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.