Smallpox History War

Smallpox History War


The arrival of smallpox in Australia is of uncertain origin. The lack of immunity among Aboriginal Australians to this introduced disease saw it inflict a devastating toll on the Aboriginal population. Though the First Fleet itself did not arrive with any known carriers of the disease, the observation of an epidemic among the Aboriginal population of Sydney around 16 months after the British arrived has led to speculation that the Fleet itself brought this disease to Australia. Some historians have suggested that the disease may have been either released by accident or theft of medicine stores or perhaps been deliberately employed as a form of “germ warfare” against indigenous Australians. Inoculation was thus commonly practised by surgeons decades before 1796 and the process of smallpox vaccination was introduced by Edward Jenner. Dried scab was commonly stored in glass containers as part of a surgeons remedies.

Early speculation on the origins of the disease is recorded in the writing of a First Fleet Captain of Marines, Watkin Tench, who noted an “extraordinary calamity” among the Aborigines of Sydney, beginning in April 1789. Repeated accounts of dead bodies marked with pustules consistent with smallpox began being reported around Sydney Harbour around this time. Tench wrote that the colonists’ observations had led them to suppose that smallpox was not known in New South Wales and as no First Fleeters had suffered from the disease, its sudden existence among the Aborigines was “inexplicable”. Tench speculated as to whether the disease might be indigenous to the country; or whether it had been brought to the colony by the French expedition of Lapérousea year before; traversed the continent from the West where Europeans had previously landed; brought by expedition of James Cook; or indeed by the first British settlers at Sydney. “Our surgeons brought out varioulous matter in bottles”, he wrote, “but to infer that it was produced from this cause were a supposition so wild as to be unworthy of consideration”.

Subsequently, and despite the lack of certainty over how or when the disease reached Australia, there has been history warfare over the allegation of the “use” of smallpox against native peoples. In 1983, Professor Noel Butlin, an economic historian, suggested: “it is possible and, in 1789, likely, that infection of the Aborigines was a deliberate extermination act”. Historians David Day and Henry Reynolds repeated Butlin’s claims and in 2001 Reynolds wrote “one possibility is that the epidemic was deliberately or accidentally let loose by someone in the settlement at Sydney Cove. Not surprisingly this is a highly contentious proposition. If true, it would clearly fall within the ambit of the Genocide Convention”.

Australian virologist Frank Fenner, an authority on smallpox and principal author of the 1988 World Health Organisation report, Smallpox and its Eradication, felt that it is not possible for live smallpox to have survived the long voyage out from England or the next fifteen months before the first cases were seen amongst Aborigines near the settlement but, he did not address the literature relevant to the variolous material in bottles brought from England. This material was carried by First Fleet surgeons for inoculation purposes and it has been shown conclusively by Christopher Warren (2007)[59] that, though degraded, it could still infect highly susceptible people with smallpox. Smallpox spread by the inhalation of airborne droplets of virus in situations of personal contact or by contact with blankets, clothing or other objects that an infected person had recently used.[60]

Medical scientists Sir Edward Stirling and Sir John Cleland published a number of books and articles between 1911 and 1966 suggesting that smallpox arrived in Northern Australia from an Asian source.[61] This was one of the points disputed by Butlin who argued that while Macassan fishermen could possibly ‘have landed the virus on the Australian mainland at some stage their ability to do so was limited’.[62] It is furthermore highly unlikely, he argued, that this virus should have been brought down from the Gulf of Carpentaria to coincidence with the first major outbreak ‘just fifteen month after the landing of the first fleet’. Besides the time factor connected to Macassans, ‘over seven or eight weeks (or more)’, the type of vessels, the limited potential for contact between Aborigines and fishermen, and the fact of clothing as carrier and virus is destroyed or seriously reduced in contact with salt water, makes the Macassan theory highly unlikely, he argued. Indeed, infected ‘Macassans would be either dead or fully recovered long before reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria.[63] Whereas transfer somehow, theft accident or the like, from scab originally stored in glass containers carried by just one of the seven medical officers on the first fleet seems the most likely cause.

In her 2002 book, historian Judy Campbell reviewed reports of disease amongst Aboriginal people from 1780–1880, particularly the smallpox epidemics of 1789-90, 1830s, and 1860s. She argues that the evidence, including that contained in these reports shows that, while many diseases such as tuberculosis were introduced by British colonists, this was not so for smallpox and that the speculations of British responsibility made by other historians were based on tenuous evidence, largely on the mere coincidence that the 1789-90 epidemic was first observed afflicting the Aborigines not long after the establishment of the first British settlement. Campbell argues instead that the north-south route of transmission of the 1860s epidemics (which is generally agreed), also applied in the earlier ones. Campbell noted that the fleets of fast Macassan fishing vessels, propelled by monsoonal winds, reached Australia after being at sea for as little as ten to fifteen days, well within the incubation period of smallpox. The numbers of people travelling in the fleets were large enough to sustain smallpox for extended periods of time without it ‘burning out’.

The Macassans spent up to six months fishing along the northern Australian coastline and Aboriginal people had “day-to-day contact with the islanders. Aboriginals visited the praus and the camps the visitors set up on shore, they talked and traded…” [65] She also notes that Butlin, writing in 1983, “did not recognize that Aboriginals were ‘great travellers’, who spread infection over long distances….” and that smallpox was spread through their extensive social and trading contacts as well as by Aborigines fleeing from the disease. [66] Campbell notes that in 1987 “British historian Charles Wilson used medical microbiology to disagree completely with Butlin about a European origin in 1789, and doubted his estimates of its demographic impact. Recently (1995) First Fleet historian Alan Frost also disagreed with Butlin’s views” [67] however, as demonstrated in Warren (2007), Frost’s view was based on the false premise that the First Fleet’s stocks of virus were sterilised by summer heat. The hypothesis that the introduction of smallpox to Australia in the far north, via long-standing trading contacts between Aboriginal people and Makassar fishermen from what is now Indonesia,[68] in relation to the Sydney epidemic of 1789-90, has been disputed by historians Craig Mear in Journal of the Royal Historical Society[69] and Michael Bennett in Bulletin of the History of Medicine.



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