‘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 convicted criminals (580 male – 193 female) – sailed from England to New Holland now Australia .See: Lieutenant William Dawes & The Eternal Flame

‘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 and HMS Supply almost immediatelyplayed-out her 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

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, with military and naval bases, Britain established supremacy over the southern oceans.

‘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.

Securing safe alternate logistical routes to and from India, Asia and China guaranteed Britain a potential blockade breaker in time of war, and in peace time new avenues for profitable trade expansion.

1788 – 6 February, Sydney: By the end of the first week of February 1788 one thousand (1000) English men and two hundred and twenty-one (221) English women had landed.

Little did they know what lay ahead; the ‘misery and horror’ of absolute isolation, they would not see another English ship or hear a word from England until June 1790.  See: Abandoned and Left To Starve Sy dney 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.

But all did not go as planned. Many breeding animals purchased at Cape Town did not survive the long sixty-eight (68 ) day last leg to Sydney. See: Apollo II, Fly Me To The Moon

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.

On landing pigs did well but most sheep, fed dry fodder on the passage Cape Town to Sydney, developed acidosis when turned out onto fresh grass, 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 the small herd went mad, was shot and eaten.

It was clear survival would depend on appropriating  foods that for millennia had sustained Australia’s First Peoples. See: A Plague of Locusts the Englishmen of the First Fleet

‘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, Phillip says now; ‘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, two (2) populations competed for the same resources but without equity Phillip wrote; ‘unabated animosity continues to prevail between the natives and us’.

‘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 Aborigines killed (4) Englishmen five (5) were 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 some hoarded what little food was available.

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.

‘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

Paranoia, hoarding and thieving were symptoms typical to those exhibited in the 1940’s by male conscious objectors who participated willingly in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

This World War II experiment designed by Dr Ancel Keyes was used to evaluate the effects of prolonged semi-starvation in Europe and, Nazi concentration camps in particular, and determine what steps would be required to alleviate their suffering and restore health when the conflict ended.

‘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

Trouble was not all down to the prisoners, jealously raged among all ranks of the marine garrison. Led by Major Robert Ross their commanding officer, dissension between the military and the naval Governor Phillip RN, bordered on open 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, six (6) found guilty as charged 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

James Freeman, a young convict, not yet twenty-one (21) years was made ‘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 [smallpox] 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 some therefore, 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, in 1770, Captain James Cook with Joseph Banks, a noted botanist on HMS Endeavour, 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,  old and recent battle scars were noted but no mention was made of pock-marks, the 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 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 and it expressed as William McNeill described when ‘disease strikes a virgin community…the old and young died indiscriminately’.

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

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


1980: When in 1980 The World Health Organisation declared smallpox eradicated it was decided to retain two (2) reservoirs of live virus – one in Russia the other America.

2018 – January: In real time the world has already seen the United Nations’ ban on chemical weapons ignored. In an era of moral turpitude, rogue states and terrorism when once more the dark shadow of biological warfare may overwhelm the world 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’. See: The Australian Mouse That Roared


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