‘Before leaving Botany Bay Phillip had messages painted on the rocks of Bare Island near which the Fleet had been moored, to guide the ships which Phillip believed were following closely from England, around to Sydney Cove. Bruce Mitchell, The Australian Story and Its Background, Cheshire Press, 1965

1787 – 13 May, Portsmouth: A large convoy eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, with a complement of fifteen hundred (1500) souls – one-half of whom were convicted criminals (580 male – 193 female) – sailed from England to New Holland now Australia.

‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marine and the [male] convicts …the standard adopted was that of the troops serving in the West Indies’. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, ed. Hugh Oldham, Library of Australian History, 1990‘. See: All The King’s Men


1788 – 20 January, Botany Bay: Between 18-20 January 1788 the fleet known in Britain and Australia as the ‘First Fleet’, anchored in Botany Bay.  See: Lieutenant William Dawes & The Eternal Flame

‘While the seine was hauling some of them [Aborigines] were present…No sooner were the fish out of the water than they began to lay hold of them as if they had a right to them, or that they were their own’. Dr John White, Chief Medical Officer, First Fleet Journal, Oxford City Press, 2011

1788 – 26 January, Port Jackson: Six (6) days later – 26 January – the fleet sailed nine (9) miles – 14 km – north to Port Jackson and anchored in Sydney Cove where military and naval bases established sea-supremacy over the southern oceans  guaranteeing Britain a blockade breaker, that is, safe alternate strategic, logistical routes to and from India, Asia and China in time of war and trade routes in peace-time.

‘New Holland is a good blind, then when, we want to add to the military strength of India’. Anon. Historical Records of New South Wales.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney: One thousand (1000) English men and two hundred and twenty-one (221) English women had disembarked at Sydney Cove by the 6th February 1788 and there they remained condemned to the ‘misery and horror’ of absolute isolation.

Abandoned and left to slow unremitting starvation they would not see another English ship or hear a word from England until June 1790.  See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sydney January 1788 to June 1790


‘The weekly ration to the marine and male convicts after their arrival in New South Wales: 7 pounds of bread or 7 pounds of flour; 7 pounds of beef or 4 pounds of pork, 3 pints of pease, 6 ounces of butter, 1 pound of flour or one-half pound of rice’. Oldham. ibid.

1788 –  February 26: Records show ‘on the very day’ Thomas Barrett, engraver of the Botany Bay Medallion, and three (3) others were accused of robbing food from the government store-house they had received the full ration and had no need to steal.

1788 – February 27: The four (4) accused on a trumped-up charged were found guilty but only Barrett hanged. See: The Ketch Connection, Thomas Barrett 1788, Michael Barrett 1868, Robert Ryan 1967 

1788 – March 13: ‘The commissary made a deduction of 12 lb [5.5kg] per hundred-weight [50.8] kg of beef and 8 lb [3.5 kg] in the hundred-weight of pork (100 lb) of beef must be cut into 28 pieces and 104 lb of pork cut into 56 pieces’. Marine Captain David Collins, An Account of the Colony of New South Wales, Ure Smith, Sydney.

Many breeding animals purchased at Cape Town did not survive the long last leg to Sydney. On landing the pigs did best while most sheep, fed dry fodder on the sixty-eight (68) day passage Cape Town to Sydney, when turned out onto fresh grass, developed acidosis and died.

 1788 – May: An inventory of livestock; ‘7 horses, 2 bulls, 6 cows, 29 sheep, 19 goats, 74 pigs, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens and 5 rabbits’. Marine Captain David Collins, First Fleet Journal Vol. I

1788 – May 15: When the two (2) bulls and five (5) of six (6) cows wandered off into the bush in May, the lone cow separated from her companions went mad, was shot and eaten.

It became apparent survival would depend on appropriating  foods that had sustained Australia’s First Peoples for millennia.

‘Our customary method was to leave Sydney Cove about four in the afternoon and go down the harbour and fish all night from one cove to another. We made 23 hauls of the seine [trawling nets] in one night’. Jacob Nagle, The Nagle Journal 1775 to 1841, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York ed. John C. Dann, 1988

1788 – June: In winter fish leave Sydney waters to spawn; ‘the fish caught were trifling…they [Aborigines] seem very badly off for food, not having any fish’.

1788 – July 2: ‘They are now much distressed for food,  few fish are caught & I am told that many of them appear on the Beach where the Boats go to haul the Seins [trawling nets], very weak and anxious to eat the small fish, of which they made no account in the Summer nor can we give them much assistance as very few fish are now caught, & we have many sick’. Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July, 1788, Historical Records of New South Wales’.

The English turned to gathering; ‘many salutary herbs that made a wholesome drink and of great use to our sick…Here is spinach, parsley, a sort of broad beans, several unknown vegetable…a sort of green berries that are pronounced a most excellent anti-scorbutic [anti-scurvy] are gathered in abundance and a specie of sorrell, all of a peculiar fine acid’. Collins. ibid.

1788 – August 22: ‘Our stock of flour bore no proportion to the salt beef and pork’. Collins. ibid.

1788 – September 28:These people [Aborigines] last summer would neither eat shark nor stingray; but the scarcity of fish in the winter, I believe, obliges them to eat anything that affords the smallest nourishment….they certainly are not pleased with our remaining amongst them, as they see we deprive them of fish, which is almost their only support’. Governor Arthur Phillip to Lord Sydney.

1788 – October 2, Africa: HMS Sirius sailed on a lone perilous voyage via Cape Horn to Cape Town to buy food and medicines from the Dutch.

1788 October, Sydney: One (1) lb of flour was deducted from the ration.

1788 – November: With warmer weather fish returned to the harbour and ‘unabated animosity continues to prevail between the natives and us’ as the two (2) populations competed without equity for the same resources.

‘A party of natives threw several spears…the governor went to the spot…they were fired at; it having now become absolutely necessary to compel them to keep a greater distance from the settlement’. David Collins. ibid.

1788 – December: During the year January to December 1788 four (4) Englishmen were killed by natives and five (5) executed on Governor Phillip’s orders.


1789 – January: The new year brought ever greater uncertainty, despondency and despair. Convict and soldier alike displayed  anxiety, depression and aberrant behaviour, thieving and hoarding.

Symptoms typical to those exhibited by conscious objectors who participated willingly in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.  It was designed by Dr Ancel Keyes in World War 11, to evaluate the effects of prolonged semi-starvation in Nazi concentration camps and Europe in general.

‘Nine knotted leather strands at the end of a short whip; after the first few strokes the knots began to bite into the flesh at the triangle’. Jack Egan, Buried Alive, Sydney 1788-92, Allen & Unwin, 1999

A sharp rise in thieving from the government storehouse and from each other was met with escalating brutality. Flogging of men and women; 25, 75 – 150 – 300 – 500 – up to 700 lashes of a cat- o’-nine-tails, at the triangle or tied half-naked to the back of a cart.

‘No one in the colony caused Phillip more trouble than Major Ross. Of all Phillip’s problems, including those of the terrible famine of 1789 and 1790, probably none was so harassing as the persistent antagonism, both covert and open, which Ross pursued against him’. John Moore, The First Fleet Marines 1786 – 1792, Queensland University Press, 1987

Jealously raged among all ranks of the garrison. Led by Marine Major Robert Ross their commanding officer, dissension between the military and the naval Governor Phillip RN, bordered on rebellion.

1789 – March 18: ‘A key was found broke in one of the locks at the public store house’. Seven (7) marines using counterfeit keys had, over an extended period, systematically robbed government stores. One (1) ratted on the others, found guilty as charged, six (6) were sentenced to die. 

1789 – March 27: ‘An awful and terrible example of justice took place….Six marines, the flower of our battalion, were hanged by the public executioner…for having at various times robbed the public stores of flour, meat, spirits, tobacco, and many other articles’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. F.L. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, 1961

A young convict, not yet twenty-one (21), was the ‘public executioner’. See: Catch 22 James Freeman 

1789 – April: ‘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.

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

The majority of the fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) prisoners and their military guards came from densely populated London and urban areas where smallpox was endemic therefore some, though not all by way of prior infection, would have acquired life-long immunity.

‘An infectious disease which immunises those who survive, and which returns to a given community at intervals of five (5) to ten (10) years, automatically becomes a childhood disease…where a disease strikes a virgin community…old and young die indiscriminately’. William Mc Neill Plagues and People, Doubleday & Co. 1976

At the time of the outbreak – April 1789 – approximately fifty (50) under-nourished English children and infants with no immunity should have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet the virus did not attack them.

Previously, Captain James Cook with Joseph Banks, a noted botanist on HMS Endeavour in 1770, visited the Botany Bay area  and stayed nine (9) days.

Both remarked on the Aborigines preference for nakedness and recorded detailed physical descriptions. Ceremonial scarring and old and recent battle scars were noted but no mention was made of pock-marks, tell-tale evidence of previous exposure to smallpox.

‘Since survivors from smallpox infection acquired life-time immunity, it follows that no epidemic could have occurred for the preceding 70-odd years before 1789, taking us back to near the beginning of the 18th century’. Professor Noel.G. Butlin, Close Encounters of the Worst Kind,  Working Papers in Economic History, Australian National University, 1982.

First Fleet journals are also full of references to Aborigines’ nakedness, yet none of the five (5) fleet physicians in Sydney mention pock-marking. Familiar with smallpox they diagnosed the rampant illness; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’ to be smallpox.

1789 – April,  Sydney: ‘The body of the [Aboriginal] woman showed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death’. Tench. ibid.

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 it 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, 1978.

In 1789 the smallpox virus was highly selective – only the Aboriginal community was affected. It expressed as William McNeill described when the ‘disease strikes a virgin community…the old and young died indiscriminately’.

Was the ‘variolous matter for use by inoculation brought out from England in bottles’ used to inoculate as intended, did it  escape to infect the indigenous population or was there a deliberate release?

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

Joseph Jefferies, born on New York’s Staten Island, joined as crew of HMS Supply when the ‘First Fleet’ put into Brazil for supplies in August 1787. See: Joseph Jefferies – From New York to Rio and Old Sydney Town – One, Then There Was None

‘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.

Motive: survival – means:variolous matter’opportunity: nothing in storage was secure as an unknown number of forged keys were still in circulation.. See: A Lethal Weapon: Smallpox – Siege Boston 1775 – Famine Sydney 1789. 

‘It is impossible to contemplate the condition or the prospects of that unfortunate race without the deepest commiseration. Still it is impossible that the government should forget that the original aggression was ours’. Lord John Russell to Sir George Gipps, 21 December 1838, Historical Records of Australia, Series I, Vol. XX

The ‘but how’ question hangs in the air. Britain and Australia share a history – but its junk history with a huge chunk missing. Britain must take its place at Australia’s table of recognition of harm done and harm that continues to be done.


 When The World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated it was decided to retain two (2) vials of the virus – one resides with the Russians the other held in America.

2018 – January: In real time the world has already seen the ban on chemical weapons ignored.  In this era of moral turpitude when once more the dark shadow of smallpox may overwhelm it is time to take the forensic knife to the smallpox outbreak of 1789; ‘that resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community’. 


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