A Lethal weapon - Smallpox: Boston 1775 - Sydney 1789

The Botany Bay Medallion - Stories About Australia’s Early History


From time to time throughout history, peoples and governments around the world have used micro-organisms as efficient and cost-effective weapons of mass destruction…The Invisible Enemy, Professor Dorothy H. Crawford, 2000.

In 1775 Britain’s American colonies rose in revolt against the ‘mother country’ . The colonists were not as one, Loyalists remained faithful to the Crown and fought their fellow countrymen alongside England’s soldiers, while the rebellious Patriots led by General George Washington fought for independence from Britain.

The first major engagement of the war - Battle of Bunker Hill - ended in stalemate four thousand (4,000) British troops commanded by General Sir Thomas Gage retreated to Boston. Two (2) senior marine officers serving at Sydney in 1788, Major Robert Ross its commander and judge-advocate Captain David Collins, served at Bunker Hill and Boston under General Gage.

In 1763…Lord Jeffrey Amherst ordered that blankets infected with smallpox be distributed among enemy tribes, and the order was acted on. Plagues and People, William Mc Neill.

Earlier in 1763, during the Indian Wars, General Gage served as second-in-command to General Amherst. Gage was implicated in the distribution of infected blankets among Indian tribes at Fort Pitt now Pittsburgh.

Military and naval experience started new ideas of hygiene….Smallpox inoculation began to have significant results from about 1760. Reformation to Industrial Revolution, Christopher Hill, 1983.

In the British army of the 18th century inoculation, using smallpox dried scab-matter, was established practice and played a dual role; infect to protect - infect to destroy. Major Ross and Captain Collins were familiar with the yin and yang of smallpox scab-matter it is highly likely both benefited from inoculation against smallpox during the Siege of Boston.

Nothing instilled fear in American soldiers and civilians so much as the prospect that the British might use smallpox as a weapon of war….[General] Washingon’s unheralded and little-recognised resolution to inoculate the continental forces must surely rank with the most important decisions of the war. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782, Professor Elizabeth Fenn, 2001.

The Siege of Boston lasted a year ( 1775-6) General George Washington used the time to recruit local and overseas fighters he armed them, trained them and inoculalted them against smallpox.


Governor Arthur Philip estimated when the complement of the ‘First Fleet’ - approximately 1,500 souls - disembarked at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 approximately 1,500 Aborigines were living in the area in an instant the population doubled.

The main battle was about having enough to eat. The Story of Australia, Don Watson, 1984.

Britain failed to sent logistical support and re-supply the ‘First Fleet’. From 26 January 1788 until 29 June 1790, when the first relief supplies arrived from England, two (2) populations - one indigenous ‘existing in a land at dawn of history’, the other introduced, Englishmen of the ‘First Fleet’, lived side-by-side competing for the same resources; one with traditional hook and line, the other with trawling nets capable of hauling ‘about four hundred wieght of fish’.

We had now been two years in the country, and thirty -two months from England, in which long period no supplies except what had been procured at the Cape of Good Hope by the Sirius had reached us.. From intelligence of our friends and connections we had been entirely cut off, no communication whatever having passed with our native country since the 13th of May 1787, the day of our departure from Porsmouth. Famine besides 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. First Fleet Journal, Captain Watkin Tench.


Captain Watkin Tench’s journal opens a door on Sydney 1789.

It is true that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles, but to infer that it [the 1789 smallpox epidemic] was produced from this cause was a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration. First Fleet Journal, Captain Watkin Tench.

Winter 1789 - starvation - just when it seemed there was nothing left but death for the stranded Englishmen the supply-demand equation altered. See: The Dead Don’t Eat.

1789: A smallpox epidemic struck the Aboriginal population round Sydney. Inexplicably, the epidemic did not affect the European population, but [Arthur] Phillip estimated that it resulted in the death of 50% of the local Aboriginal community. People of Australia, Macquarie Series, Ed. Bryce Fraser, 1998.

Captain Tench tells: (a) ‘famine approaching with gigantic strides’ (b) ‘variolous matter in bottles’ came with the fleet medical supplies (c) at the time of the outbreak many in the colony ‘infer[ed’] ‘variolous matter’ to be its source (d) nothing in storage was secure as (e) forged keys were in wide circulation (f) approximately sixty (60) severely mal-nourished European children - most without prior exposure - were present.

Tench’s rejection of a deliberate release as ‘wild supposition’ is consistent with what is known of his character. Captain Watkin Tench was one of very few ‘pearls’ scattered amongst modern Australia’s founding fathers. See: A Few Good Men.

Not one case of the disorder [smallpox] 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. Australian Discovery and Colonisation, Vol. 1 to 1810, Samuel Bennett, facsimile ed. 1981.

Joseph Jefferies was that ’North American Indian’. The young adventurer, born on New York’s Staten Island, joined the crew of HMS Supply in August 1787 when the fleet put into Rio for supplies. In 1789 he was diagnosed with smallpox it is said he died from the virus on or about 9 May 1789. The date requires verification. See: One Red Indian - Then There Was None.

Was the smallpox outbreak of 1789 engineered to save the lives of Englishmen who, according to Samuel Bennett, were ’sent to the end of the world by their government and abandoned to starvation’ ? Elapsed time renders evidence circumstantial this holds as true for Sydney 1789 as it did for Professor Fenn in her expose - Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-1782.

However the evidence: presence of ‘variolous matter’, absence of pock-marks on older Aboriginals indicating prior exposure, nutritional status, statistical probability, disease presentation; sudden onset and pattern of distribution all make a ‘wild supposition’ worthy ‘of consideration’ .

The devastating consequences that flowed from the 1789 epidemic are not in dispute but its origins and nature are constested. Aside from the late Professor Noel G. Butlin - Close Encounters of the Worst Kind, 1982- and Craig Mear - The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society Volume 94, Part 1, June 2008 no investigation into the 1789 smallppox epidemic has been undertaken.

Other than the very convenient ‘Macassan Theory’ no responsibility has been ascribed for an event that had profound cultural and biological implications for Austalia’s First Peoples. See: A Convenient Theory - It Was The Macassans Stupid.

The colony was thrust largely upon its own resources in a wholly strange physical and social environment whose chief redeeming feature [for the Europeans] was the absence of exotic disease. Childhood Mortality and its social background in the first settlement at Sydney Cove, 1788-1792, Australian Paediatric Journal, 1975, Bryan Gandevia and Simon Gandevia.