1789 – April, Sydney: ‘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 edition, 1981

Smallpox inoculation, using dried scab-matter was widespread in the British army of the eighteenth century. It served a dual purpose; to protect – to destroy.

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

1787 – August, Brazil: When the First Fleet en-route to Botany Bay put into Rio de Janeiro for supplies in August 1787 Joseph Jefferies, a North American Indian born on New York’s Staten Island, joined the crew of HMS Supply. The young adventurer died of smallpox at Sydney on or about the 10th of May 1789.

1789 – April, Sydney: ‘A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population around Sydney. Inexplicably the epidemic did not affect the Europeans, 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.


‘In 1764…Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered blankets infected with smallpox be distributed among enemy [Indian] tribes and the order was acted on’. William Mc Neill, Plagues and People, Anchor, New York, 1976

General Thomas Gage, Amherst’s second-in-command at Fort Pitt now Pittsburgh, was ‘implicated’ in the distribution. Marine Major Robert Ross commander of the Sydney garrison and judge-advocate Marine Captain David Collins, served under General Gage during the Siege of Boston 1775-1776.

Ross and Collins were familiar with the yin and yang of inoculation, it is highly likely both benefited from smallpox inoculation  during the year-long Boston Siege. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox Boston 1775 – Sydney 1789

The English population, from its arrival at Sydney in January 1788, relied heavily for survival on the First Peoples’ food resources however by mid-1788; ‘we have many sick’.

1788 – January, Sydney: ‘They [Aborigines] are now much distressed for food, few fish are caught & I am told that many of them appear on the Beach when the Boats go to haul the Seins [trawling nets], very weak & anxious to get the small fish, of which they make no account in the Summer. Nor can we give them much assistance as very few fish are now caught, & we have many sick’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788, Oxford Book of Australian Letters, ed. Brenda Niall and John Thompson, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998

Governor Phillip had been told to expect more men and supplies would ‘follow shortly’.

When none came; ‘Officers…painted some conspicuous rocks near the entrance[Botany Bay] that the settlement was now at Port Jackson’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN, A Voyage to New South Wales 1786-1792, Facsimile edition, Ure Smith, 1969


‘The beginning of the month of May, 1788, was marked by increasing distrust between the white intruders and aboriginal occupants of the soil. The calls of hunger were imperative….Early in May the first fatal result of these quarrels took place’. Samuel Bennett. ibid.

1788 – August, Africa: Mid-winter Phillip could wait no longer. He ordered Captain John Hunter RN prepare HMS Sirius for a lone perilous voyage to Cape Town to buy food from the Dutch.

1788 – 2 October, Cape Town: Sirius sailed for Africa on 2nd of October 1788. Captain Hunter wrote: ‘We left Port Jackson…and pursuing our passage by way of Cape Horn, but with much cold and disagreeable wr. [weather]. We saw an astonishing number of ice islands…we kept our Christmas going round the Horn’.

Meanwhile to relieve the pressure in Sydney when Golden Grove, the last remaining First Fleet vessel sailed for England, Governor Phillip ordered she call into Norfolk Island with a number of marines and convicts.

The island, two (2) weeks sailing time from Sydney had been settled in February 1788. There fish was plentiful year round and vegetables thrived in fertile soil.

1788 – November, Sydney: With warmer weather fish returned to Sydney waters.

‘On several occasions, when the [white] men sent to fish had obtained by means of large seine nets which had been brought out from England…the natives boldly claimed a portion for themselves’. Samuel Bennett. ibid.

Fear escalated month on month and, as another winter approached fish again left to spawn, the indigenous and introduced populations competed with ‘unabated animosity’ for the same dwindling resource.

‘The dread of want in a country destitute of natural resource is ever peculiarly terrible. We had long turned our eyes with impatience towards the sea, cheered by the hope of seeing supplies from England approach’. Watkin Tench. ibid.

1788 – 1789: No ships, no supplies, no food – something had to give and it did; ‘the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community’.

1789 – 8 May, Sydney: HMS Sirius; ‘after an absence of two hundred and nineteen [219] days entered between the heads of the harbour and worked up to Sydney Cove…we did  not see a canoe or a native the whole way coming up the harbour’. Lieutenant William Bradley RN. ibid.

They soon learned why; ‘smallpox had made dreadful havoc among them’.

Smallpox was endemic in eighteenth century England. Dr John White, the fleet’s chief medical officer and his four (4) assistant  physicians; ‘at once pronounced the disease under which they [Aborigines] were suffering to be smallpox’.

Autopsies were performed on at least two (2) Aboriginal victims of the virus. Although the presence or absence of smallpox cannot be demonstrated at post-mortem, Dr White’s examination gave no cause to alter his initial diagnosis.

Despite a known source ‘variolous matter’ and corroborative evidence; disease presentation – sudden onset, rapid spread, pattern of distribution; ‘not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people’, pattern of mortality; old and young died indiscriminately’ historians, social commentators and modern medicos, who can have no experience of smallpox, doubt the veracity of Dr White’s diagnosis.

Currently some have taken a giant leap and settled on a comfortable alternate diagnosis – chicken-pox. DVD – Greatest  Cities of the World, Griff Rhys Jones – Disc 2, Sydney – F.fwd 27 minutes.

There appears to be no documentary evidence that an epidemic of chicken-pox, a highly infectious droplet-spread virus, raged in either population.

‘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 if 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 Press, Sydney 1978

While the origin and nature of the 1789 epidemic is contested, its consequences – ‘massive disruption – destabilized society’ are not. See: A Convenient Theory: Smallpox – It was the Macassans Stupid

‘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’. Watkin Tench. ibid.

Surely it is time to consider Joseph Jefferies – vector or victim?



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