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’.