AE 660.2 – Australia’s First Pandemic

Learn Australian English in this Aussie English Fact episode where I teach you about Australia’s first pandemic of smallpox in 1789.

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Australia's first pandemic. 231 years ago, Australia's first pandemic ripped through the countryside around Sydney, killing untold thousands of indigenous people and reducing their population by probably more than 50 per cent. It was the year 1789 and the First Fleet had arrived in Sydney Cove only 15 months earlier when the colonists began to find the local people dropping like flies.

First Fleet seaman Newton Fowell reported that 'every boat that went down the harbour found them laying dead on the beaches and in the cabins of rocks. How the disease got among them? It was impossible to tell'.

Smallpox would nearly wipe out the Gadigal people in the Sydney area before spreading throughout the rest of the Aboriginal tribes along the eastern seaboard. Arabanoo was a Gadigal man who had been captured by Governor Phillip and was imprisoned and later released and remained living amongst the settlers. During the pandemic, he cared for others who contracted the disease and reported that many local families fled both to the north and interior of the country. Ultimately, he too caught smallpox and died from the illness.

It turned out that the disease was smallpox. It ripped through the population, having a devastating effect with the death rate of between 50 to 90 per cent for indigenous people. This was a vast number, reminiscent of Ebola's death rate in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, the origins of Australia's first pandemic and who brought it to the newly colonised continent still remains a mystery.

When the First Fleet arrived in the year 1788, not a single person stepped off the boat ill with smallpox. The governor Arthur Phillip had been meticulous in his preparation for the journey and made every effort to remove sickness from all members of the 11 ships. Fifteen hundred people, whether crew, Marines, officers or convicts. He knew that the success of the new settlement and the survival of its members relied heavily upon maintenance of good health.

Besides this, the long voyage at sea, totalling 252 days, meant that even if smallpox had been initially brought on board, anyone with it would have died or become immune and the virus would have disappeared by the time of arrival. Watkin Tench, the great chronicler of the journey of the First Fleet and early years of the colony stated that smallpox had though indeed been brought to the colony.

When discussing the smallpox pandemic, he wrote 'it is true that our surgeons had brought out various matter in bottles'. So, why would they do that? It was a good 70 years before germ theory would be discovered in the 1860s. So, no one knew what viruses were, nor how they spread. However, even though it was a time well before vaccinations, doctors had already put two and two together to some extent.

They kept jars of smallpox scabs that they collected from victims, which they would then grind up in order to be sniffed up through the nose or rubbed into scratches on the skin in a process called variolation. This sounds disgusting and well, to be honest, it is pretty gross, but the idea was to cause a mild case of smallpox in a patient and thus trigger an immunity to it to prevent a more serious and potentially deadly infection and outbreak.

Despite this, Watkin Tench believed it was unlikely the origin of the pandemic, and he wrote 'to infer that it was produced from this cause were a superstition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration'. Indeed, Tench wondered if other explorers such as La Perouse, Cook or Dampier had brought the virus to the shores of New Holland, but then asked himself why smallpox hadn't been seen there prior to that point in 1789.

Throughout the 20th century, numerous historians proposed that smallpox had possibly been introduced by Makassan traders from Indonesia, who'd been trading with Indigenous Australians on the northern coast of the continent for hundreds of years. Perhaps the virus already spread across the continent prior to the First Fleet's arrival and it was just reappearing.

However, other historians believe that's a bit of a stretch. And the timing of the First Fleet arriving slightly more than a year before that outbreak was too much of a coincidence. When people get smallpox, those that survive end up with faces and the extremities of their bodies covered in pockmarks, the horrible scars left over from the disease. If a smallpox epidemic had already passed through the area, it would be obvious and literally written on the faces of the local people.

However, there's no mention of this by any of the colonists. This points the finger far more firmly at the First Fleet being the source of the pandemic. So, the argument then is could smallpox have been introduced to the local population on purpose? All the Europeans, particularly the soldiers, would have known that smallpox could have a dramatic effect on war and campaigns and battles.

Many of them would have seen its effects on the Native Americans while serving there for Britain decades before, during the war of independence and the Pontiac Rebellion. And there's some evidence that items from infected patients were actually given to Native Americans in the hopes of introducing the disease during the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763.

It's possible the same thing took place in Sydney Cove sometime after 1788, whether intentionally or not, as intermingling and trade was taking place more and more between colonists and the local indigenous population.

If it was introduced on purpose, major Robert Ross is the prime suspect. He was the commander of the Marines onboard the First Fleet and had previously fought in America. The First Fleet Marine, Ralph Clarke described Major Ross as 'without exception, the most disagreeable commanding officer I ever knew'.

In fact, Ross had actually fought in the Pontiac Rebellion of 1763, as well as the American War of Independence and had experience of smallpox use in America. Although there's no direct evidence linking Major Ross to the smallpox pandemic, he would have known its uses and was, by all accounts, a relatively nasty character with little sympathy for the local people.

Other possible suspects include the convicts of the settlement who often fought with the local Aboriginal people. They would have likely known what these small surgeons vials contained within them and their effect.

Perhaps after tension began to rise between the locals and the colonists, the convicts took it upon themselves to exact revenge. Unfortunately, there still remains no significant evidence pointing to the origins of Australia's first pandemic, and unless some new extraordinary evidence appears, it may never be known how exactly smallpox arrived on Australian shores and then, subsequently, devastated the indigenous people.

Either way, smallpox did get here and its effect was incredibly profound. Most indigenous people would have been confronted with the disease and its horrible effects well and truly before they ever set eyes on European settlers. As settlers moved into the interior of the continent, they were meeting communities whose members had already been scarred by smallpox and who were still suffering the demographic effect of the disease.

The populations had become much smaller than they'd previously been, and as a result, Europeans would have faced much less resistance when they expanded into the interior of the continent. Some historians even question whether or not the First Fleet could have survived without this pandemic.

Survival was on the edge of a blade in the first several years of colonisation. Due to lack of food and reduced rations, the colonists faced starvation for a number of years. The indigenous people were also becoming much more aggressive towards the settlers. Perhaps without the pandemic, the local people would have had the strength to wipe out the settlement and save their lands, at least, temporarily.

Thus, Australia's first pandemic may have been a pivotal role in shaping the continent's history. Was it an accidental introduction or the first example of biological warfare against Australia's first inhabitants? We'll likely never know.

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