Australian Genocide

Today, January 26, 2022, marks 234 years since, well, since a few shiploads of British soldiers and convicts moved their base from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. That the foundation of Sydney is now conflated with the foundation of the nation of Australia is no surprise to the rest of us watching as a series of Prime Ministers, from Howard to Morrison, in defiance of the Constitution, increasingly live in and govern from (and for) Sydney.

And it’s probably fitting that a nation built on the lies of Terra Nullius and ‘peaceful settlement’ should now be blessed with a Prime Minister whose continuous lying has been so comprehensively documented.

One aspect of ‘peaceful settlement’ in white settler histories has always been that Indigenous populations just seemed to fade away, so that by the 1850s there were very few Aboriginal people left in (white) settled areas. This, ‘the passing of the Aborigines’ became both accepted myth and an excuse for inaction. The blame being generally ascribed to the introduction of European diseases, and despair.

In particular, Sydney and its environs were left wide open for white settlement by a smallpox plague in the local Indigenous population in 1789.

An extraordinary calamity was now observed among the natives. Repeated accounts brought by our boats of finding bodies of the Indians in all the coves and inlets of the harbour, caused the gentlemen of our hospital to procure some of them for the purposes of examination and anatomy. On inspection, it appeared that all the parties had died a natural death: pustules, similar to those occasioned by the small pox, were thickly spread on the bodies; 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, seemed inexplicable.

Watkin Tench, Transactions of the Colony in April and May, 1789

It is now clear that this was an act of Genocide.

Here are the facts:

No one on the First Fleet had smallpox. Smallpox hadn’t been eradicated but vaccination (variolation) had been developed in China in the 1500s and introduced into Europe in the early 1700s.

No person among us had been afflicted with the disorder since we had quitted the Cape of Good Hope, seventeen months before.

Tench

The British weaponized the use of smallpox against North American First Nations people in 1763 (a decade before the great North American epidemic), giving blankets and a handkerchief contaminated with smallpox to Native Americans during an extended military campaign to quash an uprising against colonial rule.

“Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

General Amherst, British Commander in Chief, North America (and later, Governor General)

A surgeon with the First Fleet, Dr John White, was carrying vials of smallpox (scabs, which were used for variolation).

It is true, that our surgeons had brought out variolous matter in bottles; but to infer that [the outbreak] was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration.

Tench

Whatever Tench supposed – and his protestations indicate that deliberate infection had at least been considered – some of the military with the First Fleet had served in the North America campaign and not all of them were as friendly towards the local population as he was.

In a paper in the international journal History of Psychiatry, Raeburn, Doyle and Saunders “describe evidence supporting the theory that smallpox was deliberately unleashed by the British invaders”; and that the outbreak began with the kidnapping of Eora man Arabanoo, on 31 Dec. 1788, using the distribution of ‘gifts’ as a distraction.

Following exposure to the smallpox virus, it takes one to two weeks for symptoms to appear. Our theory is the epidemic had been spreading for several weeks before the British became aware of it, and it may have originated from the gifts handed out when Arabanoo was kidnapped about 12–13 weeks earlier. This theory is supported by Aboriginal oral history from the Manly area.

Raeburn, Doyle, Saunders

This outbreak led to the deaths of between 50 and 90% of the Eora and related peoples in the Sydney basin. Being deliberately caused would make it just the first in a long chain of ‘dispersals’, poisonings, and murders by white Australian settlers and police.

.

Nakari Thorpe, Olivia Willis, Carl Smith, ‘Devil Devil: The Sickness that changed Australia’, ABC RN, 18 Aug. 2021
Toby Raeburn, Kerrie Doyle, Paul Saunders, ‘How the kidnapping of a First Nations man on New Year’s Eve in 1788 may have led to a smallpox epidemic’, The Conversation, 12 Jan 2022
Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1. here) (2. here)


My usual focus is my home state of Western Australia, as you may see in my Aboriginal Australia page, (here) and in particular the section titled ‘Massacres’.

25 thoughts on “Australian Genocide

    • Everywhere, in literature, in politics, you see Oh, they just died out. If I have one ambition left it is to get white Australians to acknowledge the original inhabitants didn’t just die, we wiped them out, ‘dispersed’ them with poison, guns, and starvation; used those few who remained as slave labour or rounded them up and imprisoned them in ‘reservations’.

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  1. Well said! I came to terms that the American history I grew up with and taught was all lies and you expressed this particular history well. I read Truganini by Cassandra Pybus and now there is the book Tongerloter, both indigenous history in Tasmania. I’ve not read it yet but have heard very much about it and heard the story. Thank goodness for people who dig through it all and get more to the truth. I refuse to celebrate Australia Day though I am thankful for what Australia has given us, meaning our lifestyle compared to the USA but a day such as Australia does need to include the entire population, not just white Australia. If I wore a hat, I’d tip it to you today.

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    • Thank you Pam. It’s interesting how much ‘history’ suits the winners, because so much of it is carried by popular culture, I guess, rather than by academic papers – though as we’ve seen in the History Wars, academics are as partisan as all the rest of us. And of course politicians of the right use their considerable resources, not least in schools, to make sure facts don’t get in the way of acceptable histories.

      I’m opposed to the world being divided into armed and mutually hostile camps, otherwise known as countries, so of course I wouldn’t support ‘Australia Day’ even if it wasn’t quite clearly a celebration of genocide.

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  2. So wild that in the U.S. people cannot agree whether the smallpox blankets even happened. You Google it and it’s a weeble-wobble account in which folks argue the story. I like how here you have quotes from various people from the time period, especially the doctor.

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    • Australia isn’t any better. The idea that smallpox was deliberately released has only just begun to be discussed in Australia – in fact it’s so early that the right haven’t begun kicking back. But as soon as it was pointed out to me in the articles I cited it just seemed obvious and incontrovertible.

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  3. An important post, Bill. It’s good this is now coming to light. Such a shocking act to deliberately infect people in this way, but it just goes to prove the mindset at the time thought indigenous people were less than human.

    You might be interested in this review by Jan of a book about British colonialism that’s been on my radar for awhile because I follow the author, a British Sikh, on Twitter.

    https://thinkaboutreading.wordpress.com/2022/01/27/empireland-how-imperialism-has-shaped-modern-britain/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kim, I was shocked when I happened on these stories, relatively buried on the Conversation and the ABC and not covered at all by the Age, or more importantly given where it happened, the SMH.
      More, more reading! Oh well, it’s in a good cause.

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    • Empireland is a brilliant book, I reviewed it for Shiny New Books and I know the author so got a review copy. He did a good two-part TV series on it, too, which I recommend.

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  4. This has been eye-opening Bill. I was reading an article yesterday explaining why it’s not appropriate to wish all Australians a Happy Australia Day. This is the kind of insight we don’t get in our media here (I wonder why???)

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    • Our own papers have largely moved on from attacking people who oppose celebrating Australia Day on the day Britain more or less formally invaded NSW (the actual proclamation was in Feb from memory). We only have two newspaper chains in Aust. Murdoch’s News Ltd which has 70% coverage and Nine Media chaired and managed by Liberal party hacks of the neo-lib persuasion. Ten years of Lib government and funding cuts has not yet (but almost) brought the national broadcaster to heel, but somehow some things still get discussed.
      I hope the deliberate introduction of smallpox becomes an accepted part of the Invasion Day debate – it’s time we all got past the lie of ‘peaceful’ settlement. Interesting the Guardian didn’t pick it up (as far as I can see).

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  5. Change happens, Bill … the change in our life-time concerning all these issues is immense compared with the previous period of the same length. Which is not to say we should be proud of it, but to say that progress is being made, but it is sometimes good to reflect too. I have some sympathy with not changing the date, with making it a day that commemorates what happened, which is what has been gradually happening over recent years. It could be a mark of maturity IF we were able to make it such a day?

    Oh and I like your point about Germany. I remember not being impressed in 1980 about their seeming refusal to address, publicly, their history but visiting there again in 2013 showed what change they had made. It’s impressive.

    I thought about posting something on Australia Day (though I noted that your posted this the day before) but didn’t in the end because I didn’t have the inspiration for an angle. You’ve done well with this. I’ve enjoyed the conversation too.

    (BTW As a Canberran, I liked your point about the PMs and Canberra, though I should point out that the two Labor PMs, Rudd and Gillard, lived in the Lodge, as did Liberal Turnbull, who of these three I guess had the best excuse not to, given he’s a Sydneysider. It is a sore point with Canberrans that Howard and Morrison refused to live here.)

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    • Replying (to WG) from bottom to top – there used be discussion about ministers having their offices in Sydney (North Sydney, I think) but that now seems to be just accepted. The Morrison government seems to have no problem acting in defiance of the law, and this is just one more instance.

      I did post on the 26th, I scheduled the post for 1.00am and when I woke up during the night and saw it unposted, I posted it manually. As far as I can tell the date stamp represents east coast USA time.

      Kate W was an exchange student in Germany maybe in the late 1980s and she confirms that the Germans then discussed and acknowledged their crimes…

      … which is more than the Liberal Party, and the right generally, in Australia can be persuaded to do. Though as I commented above, News and Nine don’t appear quite so jingoistic as in previous years.

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      • Ah. I’ll email you about changing your time stamp Bill.

        Re the Germans we were there in 1980. I wondered whether the fall of the wall made a difference. But that was right at the end of the 80s.

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  6. Fascinating post and I’ll point out that smallpox had already decimated Indians in Mexico after the Cortes invasion, so Europeans knew that this epidemic was lethal for Native people and they also knew how to organize quarantines to prevent outbreaks of epidemic.

    So, saying it was accidental? Not really convincing.

    PS: On the French Wikipedia page about smallpox, it’s written that going to university in England meant that young white Americans risked to die of smallpox. The American settlers decided to found their own universities in the 18thC to avoid this risk. Incredible.

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    • Australians have stood by that ‘accidental’ smallpox since first settlement, and have been so complacent all that time about our ‘peaceful’ settlement, that it is only now beginning to be questioned. We have a long way to go!

      I’m not sure the American plan worked given that they had a major smallpox outbreak of their own along the east coast by the end of 18thC. US universities are interesting though for another reason and that is that they allowed women to sit for degrees much earlier than UK and Australia (who opened up in 1881).

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