Smallpox: 1789 Biological warfare against First Nations

Transcript of Video:
Slide 1
As most of us will know, in April 1789, a catastophic epidemic of smallpox swept through local tribes near Port Jackson. This was a time when Aboriginal tribes were actively, and successfully, resisting settlers from the First Fleet. 
This outbreak was recorded by several First Fleeters, for example David Collins who wrote:


With Chris Warren, ABC RN 'Ockham’s Razor'

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Early in the month, and through its continuence, the people whose business called them down the harbour daily reported, that they found, either in excavations of the rock, or lying upon the beaches and points of different coves which they had been in, the bodies of many of the wretched natives of this country.
Now I will just interrupt the flow here to give some info on smallpox itself. Note how Collins mentioned that they were finding bodies from early in the month. This suggests smallpox was released in late February. We can see this from the time it takes to contract and develop the disease:

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This shows the progression of the disease from first infection to when it manifests first as a dramatic temperature rise and formation of a rash and then to death or recovery.

As bodies were being found in early April and were probably dead a few days, from the chart we can see that these cases must have contracted the disease over three weeks before. The green shading indicates the timing of deaths from smallpox. This suggests the middle of March.

However if smallpox is first spread by blankets, the first cases are not usually fatal as infection is only through cuts and abrasions on the skin. It is when these first cases subsequently infect their colleagues who breathe in fresh virus into their lungs, that fatal smallpox emerges.

So the first release was probably a fortnight or so earlier. This suggests late February or early March 1789. We will have a close look at this period later.
The outbreak may have killed over 90 per cent of nearby native families and maybe three quarters or half of those between the Hawkesbury River and Port Hacking.  It also killed an unknown number at Jervis Bay and west of the Blue Mountains.

In the past some authors argued that the First Fleet had no involvement whatsoever in the outbreak, and there is a huge array of misconceptions by several academics who seek to deny British responsibility. I will deal with the three main arguments here:

The first argument of denial argues that the bottles of smallpox carried by the First Fleet would have been sterilised by heat experienced by the Fleet as it crossed the Equator and during two hot summers in New South Wales. We know the First Fleet had bottles of smallpox. This was reported by a marines captain, Captain Watkin Tench.

Two authors maintaining that this material was inactive due to heat are Judy Campbell and Alan Frost. However these two did not look at the temperatures recorded during the voyage or at Sydney Cove. Also they did not refer to any of the research on how smallpox virus in scabs lost activity over long periods in normal circumstances. When this is done it is clear that the First Fleet bottles of smallpox may have weakened somewhat, but clearly still retained plenty of virus if released in large amounts. The details were published in the journal “Aboriginal History” volume 31, in 2007, practically ten years ago.
 Free Download of “Aboriginal History” volume 31, in 2007

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This shows that even if the virus weakened to around half-strength it could easily have caused the epidemic if spread amongst local tribes. We do not know how fresh the smallpox materials were as they are not listed in the official list of medicines supplied. Possibly they were obtained in Rio de Janerio, or even Capetown.

Now the second main argument that the First Fleet was not responsible for spreading smallpox is the Macassan argument.  This argument appears to have originated as a corruption of several reports to the Royal Society of South Australia in 1882. These reports suggested that Macassan visitors may have communicated smallpox in the 1860s with no relevance to 1789. Nonetheless several authors have tried to associate Macassan visitors with the 1789 outbreak claiming it was caused by smallpox from the Celebe islands, 3,000 miles away, which just happened to coincide with European settlement. 

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In 2008, this Macassan theory was refuted in the Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society by Craig Mear.  However, it was revived by the Cambridge History of Australia published in 2013. The publication by Cambridge University was substandard and lazy as it did not understand the complexity of Aboriginal trade and communication lines nor the relative isolation of the Cumberland Plain which we can see here..

We know Macassans set up temporary camps along Australia’s northern coastline while processing sea-cucumbers for the Chinese market.  However there was no smallpox at Macassar around the time of the First Fleet.  The Dutch maintained medical services there for most of the 18th century and the first report of smallpox only occurred there in 1789, far too late for it to have caused the First Fleet epidemic thousands of miles away near Sydney Cove.

Furthermore, if smallpox entered northern Australia and spread across the continent, it would have left telltale evidence in the form of pock marks along several of the spreading native trade routes as shown here.  Children along these routes who suffered smallpox in the 1780s would have been in their 40s when Europeans started spreading from Sydney Cove, but there are no reports from early explorers of smallpox scars in inland Australia consistent with the Macassan theory. 

On the contrary, as late as 1824 explorers in different areas were reporting that smallpox was unknown amongst Aboriginal tribes; that local clans were free of disease; and that their skins were sleek and without a blemish.  So it appears there was no smallpox spreading across Australia in the eighteenth century.
The third main argument argues that the outbreak was not smallpox but a severe form of chickenpox. This argument has been promulgated recently by the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times.

Hypothetically, a First Fleeter with shingles could have infected Aborigines with this virus, which then manifested as a virulent form of chickenpox. However every eye-witness were unanimous that the disease was smallpox.

When the chickenpox theory was floated by Richard Hingston in 1985 it was immediately rebutted by a leading virologist, Professor Frank Fenner. Professor Fenner specialised in smallpox and noted that if chickenpox was present, it would have been seen amongst First Fleet children. 

Fenner also raised another problem.  In late 1828, smallpox erupted in central New South Wales. A military surgeon, John Mair, investigating the epidemic reported that those natives with marks from previous smallpox, were now immune from catching the disease.  The point here is that no other disease but smallpox could have arrived with the First Fleet to generate this immunity. Mair’s report therefore clearly demonstrates that the earlier outbreak was true smallpox. 

Extracts from Mair’s report have been available since 1919.  They were published by the Australian government in John Cumpston’s History of Small-Pox in Australia.  It is now not reasonable to reintroduce chickenpox theory today - without addressing the issues raised by Fenner nearly 30 years ago.

First Fleet surgeons would have been able to distinguish severe smallpox from chickenpox by the nature of the pustules and their distribution on the body. Now the next slide is a bit graphic but this is what would have confronted First Fleeters.

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Here we see very few pustules on the torso and very dense pustules at the extremities – the hands and feet. Chickenpox is the exact opposite. Most chickenpox eruptions are on the torso with fewer eruptions, if any, at the extremities.

Another difference is the nature of the pustules and, as the First Fleet surgeons examined cases closely, their opinions must be taken as accurate. It is not possible to confuse an epidemic of severe smallpox with any other disease including chickenpox.

So we can safely conclude that the disease spreading in 1789 was smallpox.

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So now we need to turn to the main issue – was the release a deliberate act and by who.

Aboriginal oral history has probably always known that the British were responsible for smallpox. However it was Noel Butlin who famously brought this to the attention of the wider community. IN 1983 Noel Butlin wrote:

Smallpox could have been used deliberately as an exterminating agent … it is possible and quite likely the British deliberately opened Pandora’s Box.
In 2001, Dennis Foley published an example of oral history. According to Foley, the oral tradition reported that, at Balmoral, there were blankets with red markings, a stripe of words or a crown and that those who took the blankets died a horrible death of fire under their skin and the pus of a thousand festering sores. This oral history is particularly useful because it can be corroborated independently.

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The description of a stripe of words or a crown is similar to navy blankets of the era. Examples as replicas, can be seen today at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney,

First Fleet blankets could have had lettering from the symbol of George III that was branded on government property. The description of fire under the skin, is accurate as it is also the description given by those who suffered smallpox elsewhere.

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The location of Balmoral is also accurate as this is a site where numerous skeletons have been found as we can see from the strange concentration of skeletons mapped here in 1964. There are also concentrations of remains near Narabeen, Botany Bay and Middle Harbour plus on the north side of Port Hacking.
These are consistent with a release of smallpox at Balmoral and at Botany Bay with some natives dying as they fled north and south.
We now need to consider who could have released smallpox and why?

It should come as no surprise that the British released smallpox as they already used it against North American tribes on more than one occasion in the 1760’s. While this tactic was never reported in official records it certainly was recorded in British culture. Here is an example.

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In 1826 the Sydney Gazette referred to: selling blankets-full of smallpox to uncivilised nations. Using smallpox was also advocated by a British Major Robert Donkin and he spent some time serving with the marines.

It is worthwhile having a close look at the circumstances impacting on the 4 companies of marines sent out to protect the settlement.
The main problem for the small force of marines was that they departed England in May 1787 but left all their ammunition behind. They also left their tools to repair their flintlocks behind as well. 

When the Fleet pulled into Santa Cruz in June 1787, Governor Arthur Phillip sent a plea back to Evan Nepean at the Home Office requesting that the missing ammunition be sent out with William Bligh’s ship the Bounty.  Presumably this was the only reason Phillip felt it was safe to continue the voyage beyond Cape Town. 
Now the critical point here is that, unfortunately, the missing ammunition was never sent.

The marines obtained 10,000 musket balls at Rio de Janeiro, but as this was only 50 balls per musket, this would not have lasted more than 12 months.  Musket balls by themselves are pretty useless as you need cartridge paper and gunpowder. Also this supply was so insignificant that even after obtaining his 10,000 musket balls, Phillip sent another letter to Evan Nepean seeking more musket-balls, cartridge paper and repair tools.

And then, once established at Sydney Cove, Phillip yet again sends a request to England for ammunition and tools to repair their muskets, but it was too late. By 1789 the marines would have thought that their supplies requested earlier, had been sent, but that the ship, the Bounty, must have met with an accident and therefore that their supplies were never going to arrive.

The number of marines was just 160 privates plus sergeants and officers up to a total of 212. Such a small force would have been unable to both supervise the convicts and protect the settlement which had spread away from Sydney Cove and much less able to protect some far-flung outstation at Parramatta.

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Here we see the extent of the early settlement from Major Ross’s farm at Balmain, the settlement at Sydney Cove and farming at Farm Cove and Garden Cove. This is quite a large area.

Captain Tench told Phillip that they could not spare marines from Sydney to protect convicts at Parramatta. Nonetheless in October 1788, Phillip ordered a number of marines be sent to Parramatta. Initially 11 marines were sent but this seems to have been inadequate as the number rapidly increased to 17 and then, in the middle of February 1789, 21 marines were now serving at Parramatta. On top of this, over a dozen marines had died or were unfit for service and another 20 or so were on the sick list although some of these losses were made up with transfers from marines from the Sirius and Supply – but this was just 8.

We also need to recognise that the marines main weapon, flintlock muskets, were not effective against Aboriginal weapons.  Muskets were inaccurate at moderate ranges or against moving targets.  They misfired and needed reloading after every shot.  They had no rear sight and only a rudimentary foresight that was obscured when a bayonet was attached.  After an initial period, Sydney Aborigines were becoming used to muskets and less likely to scatter when confronted with them.

In all these circumstances, with no resupply and a dire need to expand the settlement, some marines must have viewed their predicament, and therefore that of the settlement, as on the verge of total calamity. 

The period around the end of February and beginning of March is of interest not only because of the nature of the disease cited earlier, but because this was when a particularly serious conflict broke out between convicts and natives. This resulted in another death of a convict, making 6 in all. This could well have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. At this point in time the release of smallpox may have occurred as a weapon of last resort.

In 2009, Michael Bennett, concluded that smallpox was released from the First Fleet, but he suggested this was a deliberate act by rogue marines or convicts.  
Where I differ from Bennett is that a close examination of the circumstances suggests that some official authority, not necessarily involving Governor Phillip, ordered the deployment of smallpox when local tribes were possibly poised to over-run the settlement and win the First Frontier War against invaders. 

We can be confident that the spread of smallpox was officially authorised because, as we saw earlier, it occurred on the opposite side of the harbour from the settlement and down the harbour at Balmoral.  This indicates that boats were used for smallpox deployment, which would have required official planning and sanction because any marines leaving Sydney Cove without permission were court-martialled.

From what we have just gone through – it is clear that the disease was certainly smallpox, that it was certainly released from the First Fleet by someone with authority to take boats out on the harbour just when the marines were running out of ammunition and manpower and they looked like loosing the First Frontier War.
This was obviously a deliberate act by the British as proposed by Noel Butlin over 30 years ago.

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And here endeth the story.


Smallpox outbreak in 1789 Link