Up to 1,500 Macassans a year would reach [northern] Australia and they did influence the Aborigines by trading iron axes, tobacco, cloth, knives and glass. They taught the Aboriginal of those parts how to make dug-out canoes, more substantial than the simple water-craft of stringy-bark’. Stewart Harris, Treaty, It’s Coming Yet, 1979  

1788: The Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’ did not find Sydney’s Eora Peoples familiar with iron axes, knives, tobacco, cloth or glass but when introduced they were valued.

1789, April: ‘Smallpox had decimated the indigenous population probably not brought by the Europeans, as first feared, but possible introduced by Indonesian traders visiting the far northern coast of Australia…By a strange coincidence, smallpox reached Port Jackson at about the same time as the First Fleet’. Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders, UNSW Press, 2006 

1789- April: If, in the light of Tench’s hard evidence ‘variolous matter in bottles’ came with the ‘First Fleet’, smallpox reached Sydney in 1789 would have been very ‘strange coincidence’ indeed.        .

‘It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

It has also been suggested, its appearance may have stemmed from an outbreak in Samartra in the early 1780s. However given the way smallpox expresses; the soles of the feet, palms of hands, the face and eyes – affecting sight –  swollen mucous membranes with extreme thirst that argument is risible.

Add to these physical difficulties strict protocols observed by Aboriginals entering the country of another clan either peaceful or hostile, it would not be feasible for Aborigines to travel such a great distance from the most northern tip of the continent in time to coincide with the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’ at Port Jackson.

1789 – April, Sydney Cove: Smallpox appeared among local Aborigines a whole year after the ‘First Fleet’ arrived.

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

Nearly twenty (20) years earlier, in April 1770, Lieutenant James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, the noted Royal Society botanist on the voyage of HMS Endeavour, visited both the southern and northern coastlines of eastern Australia. Banks noted in his journal; ‘their Canoes were the only things in which we saw a manifest difference between the Southern and northern people’. 

Marine Captain Watkin Tench of the Sydney garrison, on first observing Sydney craft, echoed Joseph Bank’s observations;  ‘the canoes being nothing more than a large piece of bark tied up at both ends with vines’.  

Watkin Tench also viewed local Aborigines’ stringy bark canoes as ‘dispicable’ but later came to value their shallow draught and superior buoyancy as far better suited for local conditions than heavier, wooden European  craft.  

Stringy bark canoes bore no resemblance to those used by Aborigines in the far north of Australia;‘large canoes fitted with sails and fighting stages capable of holding 30 men each’.

The absence of canoes similar to large northern craft is strong evidence; the ‘tyranny of distance’ protected Aborigines in the far south of the continent from incursions from its far north.

The description of Carpentarian craft is owed to Mary Bryant a most remarkable young convict women who, in March 1791 with her convict husband, two (2) small children and seven (7) male convicts, escaped from Sydney in Governor Arthur Phillip’s own cutter.

Their escape is an epic tale of tragedy and triumph. Both children, Charlotte and baby Emanuel died as did Mary’s husband William. In 1793 Mary with four (4) survivors stood in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with ‘return to the realm before expiry’ a charge that attracted the death sentence.

James Boswell fought for and, against all odds, won freedom for the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the Botany Bay Escapees


In America Britain’s use of smallpox as a biological weapon during the Indian Wars of the 1760s and, later in America’s Revolutionary War of Independence (1775-1783), remains a subject of interest.

‘Nothing instilled fear in American soldiers and civilians so much as the prospect that the British might use smallpox as a weapon war…Rumours of germ warfare at Boston had circulated as early as March 1775…By year’s end, [General] Thomas Gage had turned over his command to Sir William Howe, but talk of germ warfare had failed to subside instead, the evidence mounted’. Professor Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782,  2001 

Not so in Australia, here we make do with second-hand assertions; a disease ‘thought to be smallpox’  ‘probably’ ‘possibly’.  Even when acknowledged, its appearance was simply a ‘strange coincidence’.

1789, April: A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population around 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 Reference Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998

Only one (1) of the ‘First Fleet’ population contracted smallpox. In May 1789 Joseph Jefferies a ‘Native American Indian’ died of an illness diagnosed by ‘First Fleet’ physicians, familiar with his illness, as smallpox.

The young adventurer from New York’s Staten Island joined as crew on HMS Supply when, in August 1787, the fleet en-route to Botany Bay, put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies. See: Joseph Jefferies: From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One then There Was None

‘By a strange coincidence, smallpox reached Port Jackson at about the same time as the ‘First Fleet’. Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders. ibid

Australia, practically without question, accepts this sophism. A construct without consequences for both Australia’s founding fathers and modern Australia. The deception distorts history and denies justice for Australia’s First Nations’ Peoples.

‘The epidemic not only killed a significant proportion of the indigenous population but also destablised society…there is no easy answer to the fraught quest of [Aboriginal] clan boundaries in Sydney, particularly because an epidemic in 1789 caused massive disruption of the indigenous peoples in the area‘. Pauline Curby, Randwick [A History] , 2010.

The devastating consequences of smallpox; ‘not only killed a significant proportion of the population [caused] massive disruption [and] destabilised society’ are not in dispute, neither are the circumstances surrounding its appearance, starvation and a desperate struggle for survival in both black and white populations yet its origin is contested.

See: Abandoned and Left to Starve at Sydney Cove from January 1788 to July 1790

‘Yesterday twenty [20] of the natives came down to the beach, each armed with a number of spears, and seized on a good part of the fish caught in the seine [trawling nets]…several stood at a small distance with their spears poised ready to throw them if any resistance was made’. Arthur Phillip to Under-Secretary Evan Nepean, July 10, 1788

1788 – September:‘They [Aborigines] are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support. These people last summer would neither eat shark or stingray, but the scarcity of fish in the winter,  I believe obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment’. Arthur Phillip dispatch to Lord Sydney, 28 September 1788  


Australia’s First Peoples continue to live with the ‘massive [biological] disruption [that] destabilised [their] society’ yet the origin of the ‘politically and bibliographically controversial epidemic remains contested.

Even more detrimental to the cause of recognition, reconciliation and justice, the impact of the smallpox epidemic of 1789 is virtually ignored. See: Smallpox – Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat 



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