‘The body of the [Aboriginal] woman showed that famine, superadded to disease, had occasioned her death. 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 seems inexplicable’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, ed. L.F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961

Portsmouth – 1787, May 13: A large expeditionary force, eleven (11) ships commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip RN, sailed from England to invade the island continent of New Holland.. See: Apollo II, Fly Me To The Moon

Botany Bay – 1788, January 20: Within thirty-six (36) hours between 8-20 January the ships of the  ‘First Fleet’ were at anchor in Botany Bay, New Holland, now Australia.

HMS Supply first to arrive immediately played out her ‘seine’ trawling nets.

‘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

Port Jackson – 21 January: Taking Captain Cook’s 1770 charts Phillip accompanied by officers and surveyors set off in three (3) long-boats hoping to find a more defensible site.

Sydney Cove: They sighted the towering headlands of Cook’s Port Jackson’. Rowing through into a vast harbour Phillip settled on a protected deep-water cove naming it for the Home Secretary Lord Sydney.

Botany Bay – 23 January: ‘The boat[s] returned on the evening of the 23d…it was determined the evacuation of Botany Bay should commence the next morning.

24 January: ‘I rose at the first dawn… when the cry of “another sail” struck on my astonished ear’. Tench. ibid.

Two (2) French ships, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, commanded by Jean-Francois La Perouse, appeared off the entrance to the bay. HMS Sirius’ deck- mounted cannon forced La Perouse back out into raging seas.

25 January: The weather kept Captain Phillip inside Botany Bay until the afternoon of the 25th January when aboard HMS Supply he quit Botany Bay. At  sunset Supply dropped anchor in Sydney Cove.

26 January – Sydney Cove: Next morning at first light Phillip landed with a detachment of marines. A flagstaff was built and the Union Jack raised. By nightfall the remaining English ships were riding alongside Supply. See: Australia Britain by a Short Half-Head – Captain Arthur Phillip & Comte Jean- Francois La Perouse

‘Owing to the multiplicity of pressing business necessary to be performed immediately after landing, it was found impossible to read the public commissions and take possession of the colony in form, until the 7th of February ‘. Tench. ibid.

The most ‘pressing business’ – what to do about La Perouse?  The solution was extraordinary. Drop everything and occupy an uninhabited mere dot in a wild ocean that, in 1774 Captain James Cook on his second Pacific voyage, had named Norfolk Island.

To stymie the French, who had the same notion, on 31st January 1788, Governor Phillip commissioned Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN, his closest friend and trusted ally, Lieutenant Governor of Norfolk Island and sent him off to establish an even more isolated ‘Robinson Crusoe’ settlement there.


6 February, Sydney: At the end of the first week of February 1788 the fleet’s two hundred and twenty-one (221) women and their children were rowed ashore.

7 February, Sydney: The following day, with all the ‘pomp and circumstance of glorious war‘, Governor Phillip’s commissions were read.

Without consent of its First Peoples or entering into treaty them,in the name of King George III,Britain claimed ‘Sovereignty’ over New Holland ‘from Cape York in the most northern extremity….and adjacent islands….to South Cape’.

14 February, Norfolk Island:  A week later just on dusk HMS Supply slipped out through Sydney Heads and disappeared from view. See: Asleep In The Deep

10 March, Botany Bay: La Boussole and L’Astrolabe sailed for home never to be seen again.


‘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

When no ships arrived it became clear European survival would depend on appropriating foods, especially fish, that for millennia had sustained local Aboriginal families

‘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 in one night’. Jacob Nagle, The Nagle Journal 1775 to 1841, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York ed. John C. Dann, 1988


‘In determining the daily ration no distinction was drawn between the marines and the [570 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 – Criminals of the First Fleet

The Navy Board mandated without ‘distinction…weekly ration to the marines 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.

Livestock inventory revealed; ‘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’. Collins. ibid

Within a week or so both bulls and all but one (1) cow wandered off into the bush. The lone cow, separated from her companions, went mad was shot and eaten.

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.

June:  Winter,  fish left the harbour for warmer waters; ‘the fish caught were trifling…they [Aborigines] seem very badly off for food, not having any fish’. Arthur Phillip to Joseph Banks, 2 July 1788, Bladen, Historical Records of New South Wales.

July: ‘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 Seines, 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’.

August 22: There was still butter in the store-house but ‘our stock of flour bore no proportion to the salt beef and pork’.

 September: By the end of September eight (8) of the nine (9) chartered vessels, Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Scarborough, Prince of Wales, Lady Penrhyn, Borrowdale, Fishburn had left for the return to England. See: Asleep in the Deep – Merchantmen of First Fleet


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 Phillip to Lord Sydney.

October:  One (1) lb of flour deducted from the ration.

Africa – 2 October:  HMS Sirius departed Sydney on a lone perilous voyage sailing via the Southern Oceans, Drake Passage, around Cape Horn to Cape Town, to buy urgently needed flour and medicines from the Dutch. See Proximity Not Distance Drove Britain’s Invasion of New Holland

 Sydney – November:  With warmer weather fish returned and trawling began again. ‘The governor went to the spot [where]…. a party of natives threw several spears….they were fired at; it having now become absolutely necessary to compel them to keep a greater distance from the settlement’. David Collins. ibid.

December:  Two(2)  populations competed for the same resources but without equity, spears versus guns Phillip wrote, ‘unabated animosity continues to prevail between the natives and us’.


‘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

1789 – January: The new year brought greater uncertainty and despair to the beleaguered settlement. Convict and soldier alike displayed anxiety and depression. A sharp rise in thieving from both each other and the government storehouse was met with escalating brutality.

Records show both men and women, tied half-naked to the back of a cart or at the triangle, were given 25, 75 – 150 – 300 – 500 – up to 700 lashes with the cruel cat- o’-nine-tails.

‘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

Major Robert Ross’ attitude towards Governor Phillip bordered on open rebellion. His aggressive stance permeated all ranks of the marine garrison. See: Rules of Engagement – Take Two – Governor Phillip & Major Ross

18 March: ‘A key was found broke in one of the locks at the public store house’. Tench. ibid.

Seven (7) marines using counterfeit keys over an extended period had systematically robbed the government store-house. One, thought to be the instigator, ratted. He gave ‘king’s evidence’ against the others.

27 March: ‘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’.  Tench. ibid.

James Freeman the young convict ‘public executioner’  not yet twenty-one (21) who earlier ( 29 February 1788) had been caught in a Faustian bargain – kill or be killed. 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.

The majority of the fleet’s seven hundred and fifty (750) prisoners and their military guards came from densely populated London and urban centres of population where smallpox was endemic.

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

Some of Phillip’s ‘people’ would, by way of prior infection, have acquired life-long immunity.

Not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people either afloat or on shore although there were several children in the settlement’.  Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, facsimile edition, 1981

However upwards of fifty (50) under-nourished English children and infants, twenty-two (22) of these said to have been born during the voyage, would have been as susceptible as local Aborigines yet none were infected.


‘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

In April 1770 Captain James Cook RN and Joseph Banks, noted Royal Society’s botanist, disembarked at Botany Bay from HMS Endeavour. They stayed nine (9) days before moving north.

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

Later, on the Great Barrier Reef, Endeavour ran onto a coral reef. Holed below the water-line Cook spent far longer in the north repairing his ship – again nakedness and no mention of pock-marking.

‘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 also are full of references to the nakedness of the locals. None of the fleet’s physicians mention pock-marks. They diagnosed a familiar disease; ‘which our former observations had led us to suppose them strangers’.

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.

 The 1789 viral outbreak was highly selective. Only Aboriginal families were affected. It expressed as William McNeill described when ‘a disease strikes a virgin community the old and young died indiscriminately’.

‘But a North American Indian…took the disease and died’. Bennett. op.cit.

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

‘Whatever might be the cause, the existence of the malady could no longer be doubted’. Tench. ibid.


‘For the Sydney people to lose around 50 per cent or more of their military capability in a few weeks was a crushing blow…Galgala [smallpox] determined the shape of the next few years of conflict, if not the outcome of the [frontier] wars and was a critical factor in the British military of occupation of the Sydney region’. Stephen Gapps, The Sydney Wars 1788-1817, NewSouth Press, 2018

Motive: Survival,  in April 1789 the weekly ration; ‘to every child of eighteen months old and to every grown person two pounds of pork, two pounds and a half of flour, two pounds of rice, or a quart of pease.

Means:variolous matter in bottles’

Opportunity: nothing in storage was secure as an unknown number of counterfeit keys were still in circulation.

1790 – Sydney, April:  ‘When the age of this provision is recollected, its inadequacy will more strikingly appear. The pork and rise were brought with us from England: the pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it’. Tench. ibid.


1790 – January 1: ‘Every morning from daylight until the sunset did we sweep the horizon  in the hope of seeing a sail…No communication  whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May 1787, the day of our departure from Portsmouth.Famine was approaching with gigantic strides and gloom and dejection overspread every countenance. Men abandoned themselves to the most desponding reflections, and adopted the most extravagant conjectures.’Tench. ibid.

The following year March- April 1790 with winter at hand, Phillip drew on that terrible example and evacuated 50% of ‘his people’  to Norfolk Island.

1790 – – Sydney, March 6: HMS Sirius departed for Norfolk Island with one-half of Phillip’s ‘people’. While HMS Supply, laden with supplies, was to return to Sydney with Lieutenant Gidley King , Captain Hunter RN was to sail Sirius onto China and arrange rescue.

‘But the Sirius was not destined to reach China’.

1790 – Norfolk Island, March 19: Wild weather and the island’s extremely hostile rocky shoreline brought disaster. After safely landing her evacuees Sirius run onto a submerged reef.

Efforts to free her failed. Before Sirius broke-up in ‘pounding surf’ Supply was able to take her crew off and ferry them ashore with no loss of life.

1790 – Sydney, April 6: ‘We were surprised to see a boat belonging to the Supply rowing towards us. I [Tench] saw captain Ball making an extraordinary motion with his hand, which too plainly indicated that something disastrous had happened…At six o’clock in the evening, all the officers of the garrison both civil and military were summoned to meet the governor in council’.

The quarter-master reported on the supply position; ‘Salted meats until 2nd July, flour until 20th August, rice or dried pease [dahl] until 1st October.

After a discussion that can only be imagined it was resolved Lieutenant Henry Ball would sail HMS Supply to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta. Ball was to buy food and medicines and charter a Dutch vessel to bring them to Sydney.

1790 – Jakarta, April 17: ‘We followed her with anxious eyes until she was no longer visible…everything which zeal, fortitude and seamanship produce, was concentrated in her commander.

‘Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war’ were no more, all our labour and attention were turned on one object – the procuring of food’. Tench. ibid.



London Gazette Extract 1789

1790 – Sydney Cove: June 3:  When six (6) weeks later a ship with ‘London on her stern’ dropped anchor she was the lone ship in a vast harbour.

Lady Juliana first of four (4) ships of ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’ the second fleet brought news of home , the first contingent of infantry, the New South Wales Corps ,news of revolution – The French Revolution and the unmistakable shadow of rebellion.


‘Whatever might be the cause, the existence of the malady could no longer be doubted’. Tench. ibid.

We are yet to ask the question – was the disaster that unfolded in the form of smallpox in 1789 a direct result of Britain’s under-resourced invasion of the south-eastern coast of Australia? See: Smallpox – A Lethal Weapon – Siege Boston 1775 – Famine Sydney 1789.

Captain John Hunter, commander of the Sirius, wrote in his journal that 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 changed’. Jeffrey Grey, A Military History of Australia, The British Period 1788-1870, Cambridge University Press, 2001

Motive – means – opportunity: Was it deemed necessary to the survival of English men, women and children banished 23,000 km from their homeland?

Not one case of the disorder occurred among the white people either afloat or on shore although there were several children in the settlement’.  Samuel Bennett, Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1800, facsimile edition, 1981

‘Truth-telling’:  It  is time to take the forensic knife to smallpox 1789. ; it was a critical factor in the British military occupation of the Sydney area’. Gapps. ibid.



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