You are here

The smallpox holocaust that swept Aboriginal Australia - Red hot echidna spikes are burning me

Editor's introduction Dr Jim Poulter's learned study has revolutionary consequences for much demographic theory on Australia's population pre-European settlement. This is a deeply satisfying analysis for specialist and enthusiast alike, given its knowledgeable attention to the role of the clan and skin system in ordering fertility opportunity; its integration of climate, space and tradition into the equation; and its careful use of European data on the effects and quarantine of smallpox in the years 1789 and 1828. Anyone studying the effects of smallpox anywhere, however, cannot escape being affected by its tragic and terrifying aspect - even across centuries - and the scale of its impact. - Sheila Newman (Population Sociologist)

Utilising both historical documentation and Aboriginal oral history, the author explores the impacts of the 1789 and 1828 smallpox plagues on Aboriginal Australia. Particular reference is made to the Wurundjeri people of the Melbourne area, where the plague entered their folklore as ‘the Mindye’. An analysis is made of the natural carrying capacity of the land for hunter-gatherer society in Australia in poor seasons and the pre 1788 population is estimated at three million people. The course of the 1789 smallpox plague along the coastal areas and inland river systems is briefly mapped. A death rate of 90% is established for populations having their first exposure to smallpox and the Australian death toll for the 1789 pandemic is estimated as at least two and a half million Australians. The original population of Woiwurung speaking people in essentially the Yarra Valley area of Melbourne is estimated at 20,000, with this being reduced to 1000 people after the second smallpox plague that began in 1828. It is concluded that the massive social dislocation and internecine conflict caused by the plague was then mistakenly seen and recorded by early settlers and historians as the ‘normal’ state of affairs. [About the Author - see end of this article]

The Wurundjeri legend of the Mindye

The traditional land of the Wurundjeri people was essentially the Yarra valley catchment area. They were part of the Kulin Nation, a confederation of tribes in the Port Phillip Bay and Central Victorian area. In February 1803 British explorers first became aware that the Wurundjeri people had been victims of an earlier smallpox plague. At this time the ship ‘Cumberland’ under Charles Grimes was exploring Port Phillip Bay and entered both the Maribyrnong and Yarra Rivers. One of the men on board, James Fleming, noted that there were smallpox scars on several of the natives they encountered. [1]

This was quite obviously a result of the smallpox plague that had originated fourteen years before in 1789 at Sydney Cove. Later, when the Port Phillip colony was established in 1835, early settlers also noted victims with more recent smallpox scarring. This had resulted from a second plague which had in 1828 also originated out of Sydney. [2]

Early settlers and historians at the new Port Phillip Colony soon became acquainted with the Wurundjeri legend of the Mindye which was given as the explanation for the smallpox scarring. The Mindye was described as a serpent like creature with a head like a dog. It also had a huge mane and a tail like a ring-tailed possum. It was at least ten miles long and could move through the countryside at a blurring speed leaving a trail of dust. The Mindye spat poison and the trail of dust containing the poison was called ‘Manola Mindye’, meaning ‘the dust of the Mindye’. This dust caused boils of pus all over a victim’s body and if the person survived they were left with deep pockmarks called ‘Lillipook Mindye’ which meant ‘cups of the Mindye’. The smallpox scars were also referred to as the ‘scales of the Mindye’. [3] You might not see the Mindye but the swathe of death would mark its path.

It was quite obvious to the settlers hearing the story that this was a recounting of a smallpox plaque that had swept through Wurundjeri territory twice in the previous fifty years. There do not appear to be any earlier stories of the Mindye and it can therefore be assumed that this was the first such mass plague experienced. In the initial stories given to the settlers the Mindye seems to have been regarded as a product of human sorcery by a particular, perhaps mythical, family.[4] These initial Mindye stories seem to be consistent with the traditional Aboriginal belief in a non-interventionist God.[5]

That is, all Aboriginal tribes subscribe to a basic belief that the world was created by a Supreme Being in an act of imagination (The Dreaming). In order to hold reality in place, the Spirit of All Life gave human beings consciousness, (Personal Dreaming) and entrusted them with custodial responsibility for the Land and the Dreaming. Reality is therefore held in place by human perception and human ritual. [6]

Seeing that the Secret of Dreaming was now in human hands, the Spirit of Life retired from any involvement in the day to day running of the world. Everything that happens is therefore due to human agency, whether witting or unwitting and is not in any way an expression of ‘God’s Will’. All misfortune is therefore seen as either a product of human sorcery, or a weakening of the fabric of reality caused by human failure in their stewardship of the land. This belief in a non-interventionist God is best illustrated by the fact that all drawings of Wandjina, one of the names for the Supreme Being, show eyes but no mouth. This clearly portrays the belief that ‘God sees everything, but says nothing’.[7] It was therefore quite consistent with this basic world view that the initial stories should portray the Mindye as a product of human sorcery rather than a product of divine intervention.

However as Wurundjeri people in colonial times became more exposed to the Judeo-Christian idea of a vengeful and interventionist God, the legend of the Mindye appears to have been updated. These new versions of the story, apparently revised for Christian ears, now proposed that the Mindye had appeared as a punishment to the people and that the Mindye serpent had been acting at the behest of Bunjil, the Creator Spirit.[8] This latter-day version of a vengeful God is also disputed by Wurundjeri Elder Warrend-Badj (Ian Hunter) who in 1998 stated:

‘Bunjil is not going to seek retribution on his people…He’s not going to cause famine to rage through the country and sickness. He’s not going to ruin what he created.’[9]

This contemporary comment therefore has the essence of what traditional Aboriginal society felt was its mandate on Earth, and this was expressed by the basic belief that ‘God’s only will is to care for the land and each other’.[10] Just how this mandate was achieved therefore needs a little more consideration.

"Cover Illustration by Jim Poulter, based on traditional southeast Australian Aboriginal wood carvings which feature geometric lines gouged with a possum tooth. The four lined triangle shapes in the centre of the Mindye figure is a common way the four basic skin groups of each tribe are represented. The sixteen figures surrounding the Mindye are the symbols commonly used on bark paintings to represent interred corpses. They show the unprecedented loss of life within all skin groups of every clan."

Adaptation of population to the carrying capacity of the land

Because of their primary mandate to care for the land and each other, Aboriginal people developed sophisticated procedures for land management, resource husbanding and population control.[11] Therefore prior to British settlement in 1788, Aboriginal people in Australia enjoyed the highest common standard of living of any people in the world. All tribal areas were based on water catchment areas and the totemic system was utilised as a means of species conservation and land management. [12] The totemic system also governed marriage and family relationships and together with common male and female contraceptive practices, all tribes ensured that their population remained consistent with the natural carrying capacity of the land. [13] This was however not just the carrying capacity of the land in a good or average year, but in the worst of years. For Aboriginal people abundance was the norm.[14]

One of the immediate benefits of actively governing their population and never over populating was that there were no wars of conquest or occupation. This is supported by the fact that no such events were ever recorded in Aboriginal oral history, myth or legend. Each tribe remained in their own catchment area in order to meet their life purpose of exercising a conscious stewardship of their Country. The only intertribal disputes that ever arose were therefore in relation to tribal boundaries or inter-tribal justice and ‘payback’ issues.[15] Many historians have implicitly acknowledged this fact, but then made the mistake of thinking that the internecine conflict that followed the massive depopulation by smallpox was the ‘normal’ state of affairs.[16]

Unlike countries in other continents where national boundaries were closely defined to the surveyed millimetre and jealously guarded, tribal boundaries in Australia were in comparison more vaguely defined. This was because it was the central river catchment of a tribal area that was most clearly defined, but the boundaries were fairly permeable and subject to reciprocal hospitality agreements.[17] However despite such agreements and protocols, boundary disputes would invariably arise. Armed conflicts between tribes that did occur were therefore related to boundary disputes or payback for real or perceived wrongs. However all such inter-tribal and intra-tribal disputes were highly ritualised affairs refereed and resolved by agreed protocols.[18]

Establishing the total population of Australia prior to 1788

Saying that tribal Aboriginal society was adapted to the carrying capacity of the land of course begs the question as to just what the carrying capacity of the land was and just how many people could be properly be fed in the worst of years. This of course varied according to the climate and conditions of each region, but in general terms the most arid areas of Australia can readily sustain a hunter-gatherer population of about one person per thirty-five square miles or one person per ninety square kilometres. If we accept that around 60% of Australia can be classed as arid (even before white settlement) this equates to a population in those areas of little more than 50,000 people. On the other hand, in coastal and riverine areas probably an average of two or more persons per square kilometre of a hunter-gatherer society could be supported over the long term.[19]

This assessment is supported by the fact that when Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived at Sydney Cove in 1788, he observed that some 1,500 native people lived within a ten mile radius of the settlement.[20] This figure has not been seriously questioned and equates to a population density of five people per square mile, or otherwise two people per square kilometre. Other observations tend to confirm that this was indeed the common population density for the coastal and riverine areas of Australia.

So the question therefore now becomes, what percentage of Australia’s area can be defined as coastal and riverine? If we choose an arbitrary figure of say 15% this would mean an area of 450, 000 square miles. At five people per square mile this yields a population of some two and a quarter million people living in the coastal and riverine areas of Australia prior to British settlement. After deducting the arid 60% and the coastal/riverine 15%, the remaining 25% of Australia might generally be classed as ‘savannah’ or grassland. If we accepted an arbitrary population density of one person every two and a half square kilometres (one square mile) in the savannah areas, this would equate to 750, 000 people. So if we round this off to 700,000 we arrive at a neat 3 million people in Australia prior to British settlement. This is again a neat average of one person per square mile in the three million square mile area of Australia.

This of course exceeds by a factor of ten the traditional estimate of Aboriginal population as being only 300.000 people at the time of first settlement.[21] This estimate was however made only after the smallpox pandemic and no allowance was made for the death toll that had resulted from the plague. It also did not attempt to estimate the natural carrying capacity of the land for a hunter-gatherer society.

As more is understood on the natural carrying capacity of the land and how this varies over time, estimates of the Aboriginal population at the time of white settlement have been subject to constant upward revision over recent years. For instance more recent estimations of the original population of Queensland alone have been in the order of 500,000 to 600,000 [22] - double what had previously been estimated for the whole of Australia.
Similarly, the previous estimates of the Tasmanian population have also been subject to significant review. Estimates of the carrying capacity of the land in Tasmania show that on average it had an even greater carrying capacity than the mainland[23] and could have supported a population of 80,000 people[24] or even more. Tasmania also had the least variable climate of anywhere in Australia, so even in the worst season scenario this would be close to its long term sustainable level. This equates to an average population density for the whole island of three people per square mile, compared to the mainland average of one person per square mile.

Establishing the total population of the Wurundjeri prior to 1788

If Aboriginal people enjoyed the highest common standard of living in the world in the 18th century, then along with east coast Tasmanians, the Wurundjeri may well have been the flag bearers in Australia. The Yarra Valley catchment area has a benign climate all year round and abounds with food sources. Eels, blackfish, freshwater mussels and yabbies in the waterways; water fowls and white meat game birds in the wetlands; big and small red meat game in the grassy plains; nuts, berries, tubers and small game in the bush areas. It was indeed a bountiful region.[25] It can therefore be safely assumed that for the Wurundjeri, or more specifically the Woiwurung speaking people, there was a population density of at least two and a half to three people per square kilometre, or six to seven people per square mile, even in the worst of seasons.

The Woiwurung speaking people consisted of six clans occupying areas on the Werribee River, Maribyrnong River, Sunbury-Macedon ranges area, north Yarra tributaries, south Yarra tributaries and Kooweerup swamp area.[26] In all, this represents a total area of some 8,000 square kilometres, so using the more conservative estimate of two and a half people per square kilometre, this represents a total Woiwurung population of no less than 20,000 people. Whilst this might severely contradict other previous estimates of the original Woiwurung or Wurundjeri population, these previous estimates seem not to have been based on any estimation of the natural carrying capacity of the land. These previous estimates also failed to account for the horrific death rates caused by the smallpox pandemics of 1789 and 1828 and simply relied on some contemporaneous observations of early settlers.

How the smallpox holocaust of 1789 began

The smallpox plague suddenly became evident at Sydney Cove in early April 1789. A member of the First Fleet, John Hunter, gave the following indelible description:

‘It was truly shocking to go around the coves of this harbour, which were formerly so much frequented by the natives, where in the caves of the rocks which used to shelter whole families in bad weather, were now to be seen, men, women and children lying dead. As we had never seen any of these people who had been in the slightest degree marked with the smallpox, we had reason to suppose that they had never before now been affected by it.’[27]

Another account by First Fleet member David Collins writes even more graphically about the scenes he witnessed with an Aboriginal friend in April 1789:

‘At that time a native was living with us; and on out taking him down to the harbour to look for his former companions, those who witnessed his expression and agony can never forget either. He looked anxiously around him in the different coves we visited; not a vestige in the sand was to be seen of a human foot; the excavations in the rocks were filled with the putrid bodies of those who had fallen victim to the disorder; not a living person was anywhere to be met with. It seemed as if, flying from the contagion, they had left the dead to bury the dead. He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time; at last he exclaimed, ‘All dead, all dead’ and then hung his head in mournful silence.’[28]

Attempts have been made by some historians to attribute this outbreak at Sydney Cove to the seasonal visits to Arnhem Land by Macassan fishermen from Indonesia, with the disease therefore spreading to Sydney from there. This is simply speculative nonsense that has not a shred of either colonial documentary evidence or Aboriginal oral history to support it. Frank Fenner, an eminent Australian virologist and world authority on smallpox has also strongly asserted that the smallpox virus in bottled scabs could not have survived the boat trip from England. Both the proposition of a northern point of origin of the disease and the previously vaunted view that variolous matter could not have survived the boat trip from England, has now been completely disproven in a comprehensive study by Craig Mears.[29]

There is no doubt that the smallpox pandemic originated in Sydney and was caused by the release of some variolous matter brought here by one of the First Fleet doctors. These smallpox scabs were in all probability obtained when the First Fleet stopped over at Cape Town for supplies.[30] It was only seven years after this in 1796 that Edward Jenner discovered the process of inoculation for smallpox through cow pox. So at the time the First Fleet arrived here, the use of variolous matter for immunization purposes had already been established.[31]
It was also well known more than twenty five years prior to the First Fleet arriving, that smallpox could be transmitted through infected clothing and blankets. There is evidence that smallpox was deliberately introduced to the American Indian population at Fort Pitt in 1763 at the time of Pontiac’s rebellion. General Amherst gave the order to release smallpox through infected blankets and clothing and whether coincidentally or not, it was put in effect by a trader, William Trent who wrote:

‘…we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.’[32]

However there is no evidence that can be adduced to suggest that the smallpox virus was deliberately introduced to the Australian Aboriginal population in 1789 for genocidal purposes. In all likelihood the doctor, or someone else, simply dropped and broke the jar containing the variolous matter. There is oral history of precisely this situation, but no written record. It seems that one settler, perhaps even the person who dropped the jar and threw the contents away, subsequently became ill and recovered, but the infection meanwhile spread to the Aboriginal population, which had no resistance to such European diseases.

The epidemic became apparent in early April 1789. Colonists recorded that scores of dead bodies were floating in Sydney Harbour and Aboriginal camp sites had been deserted, with the dead and dying everywhere. Expeditions further up the coast also revealed the inexorable spread of the disease and its awful toll. Of the Cadigal people at Sydney Cove there were only three known survivors, and even if as some authors have suggested the Cadigal numbered only fifty people.[33] This conservative figure still results in a death rate of 94%.

It has been suggested that some Cadigal people would have fled to other areas, but this was only likely to have spread the disease rather than avoid it. During the asymptomatic two-week incubation stage, newly infected people would have been fit and able to travel, and could have readily covered 100 to 200 kilometres. However once they became visibly sick and in the infectious stage, the process would have been repeated with fresh victims in the new area.

The inexorable spread of smallpox throughout Australia

Aboriginal oral history and knowledge of tribal relationships does in fact give some interesting insights on the way the disease would have spread. Because each tribal area is centred on a river catchment area, the disease would have spread most quickly up the river systems of Sydney Harbour and through related tribal areas to the west and southwest. Along the coast the disease would have spread slower because of the more frequent tribal boundaries. However all tribal boundaries were porous and the spread of the disease was facilitated by familial relationships and customary trade between neighbouring tribes. The disease therefore spread more quickly upriver into the hinterland and from there raced into the Murray-Darling basin, most probably down the Lachlan and Yass Rivers. [34]

Within probably four months or so of the first outbreak of smallpox in April 1789, the plague would have reached the Murray River via the Murrumbidgee, and from there spread inexorably both up and down the densely populated Murray River valley, as well as up the Darling River. In the 1830’s early explorers such as Sturt, Mitchell and Beveridge all recorded seeing large numbers of skeletons at abandoned sites along the Murray and Darling Rivers, as well as middle aged survivors who unmistakably bore smallpox scars.[35]

As well as these observations and reports by early settlers the rampage of the disease across Australia was recorded in song by many Aboriginal tribes. Coding travel route landmarks, ecological information and firestick farming schedules into song was of course a principal source of memorising and transmitting such information among and between tribes. Travel routes were therefore referred to as ‘Songlines’ and the process of memorizing ecological relationships and tasks to be undertaken was called ‘Singing Country’.[36] Calamitous events were also commonly coded into song and dance, and communicated to distant parts along the Songlines. This is quite similar to the way in which travelling minstrels bore news of events in medieval Europe.

Unfortunately the messengers with the news often brought the disease with them and the smallpox lament ‘Maleye Maleye-eye’ (Echidna Spikes are Burning Me) that originated in Sydney was communicated around Australia with the disease following hard on its heels.[37] Each tribe translated the song into its own language and it was sung with accompanying groans that simulated the agonizing sounds of the dying victim. The following is the song in Tjapwoorong, which is a West Kulin dialect similar to the Woiwurung language of the Wurundjeri. It is accompanied by the translation of the song into English grammatical form. Just to read it, let alone hear it, is a haunting and evocative experience.

At the same time that the disease had begun its rampage through the Murray-Darling Basin, it had also inexorably spread up and down the New South Wales coast to Queensland and into eastern Victoria, but the inland route proved to be the quickest for the disease to reach southern Australia. Aboriginal oral history in South Australia clearly shows that the disease had spread to them from the east along the Murray River.[38] Aboriginal oral history in the Western District of Victoria also shows that the disease spread to them from their west and had come from the Murray Riverland in South Australia. [39]

Wurundjeri oral history records that the ‘Mindye’ reached the Melbourne area from Castlemaine, which is north-east of Melbourne.[40] There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this account because it makes perfect sense. Once into the Murray River valley the disease would have spread into the Victorian tributaries of the Murray, which were also densely populated riverine areas. This of course includes the Loddon River which has its source at Castlemaine. The Loddon Valley is Dja Dja Wurung Country and they are a West Kulin language tribe sharing familial, ceremonial and trade relationships with the Wurundjeri.[41] From the headwaters of the Loddon, the holocaust spread across the Kulin Nation of the Port Phillip Bay area.

At the same time as this, the plague was sweeping through the Gunnai people of Gippsland from the east, whilst probably also sweeping down to them from the Upper Murray tributaries to their north. As well as this it was now also sweeping into West Gippsland through Wurundjeri and Bunurong Country. Some historians have suggested that Gippsland was not subject to the smallpox plague[42] but this ignores both Aboriginal oral history and common sense. The destruction of the skin group system and social dislocation observed by early colonists in Gippsland[43] strongly suggests that the exact opposite is more the truth. The Gunnai people were likely to have had the disease reach them on three fronts and as a result were all but annihilated. The fact the George Augustus Robinson, the Aboriginal Protector, did not note any smallpox scarring or blindness amongst the Kurnai and Ngarigo in his 1844 tour,[44] might only mean that they only missed out on the second plague because their numbers were too thin after the first plague. After all, the very youngest survivors of the first plague would by 1844 have been in their sixties.

Historians have also claimed that the smallpox plague did not reach Tasmania, but Aboriginal oral history nonetheless recounts a serious epidemic in which entire tribes were swept off prior to colonial settlement in 1803.[45] Certainly there were many European diseases introduced to Tasmanian Aboriginals by sealers in Bass Strait, but the sealing industry was not established until after the 1789 smallpox epidemic, so sealers could not have transmitted the disease to Tasmania at the time it was ravaging the mainland. The coincidence that the Tasmanian population may have been reduced by around 90% at the same time that the identical thing was happening on the mainland, therefore remains unexplained.

By the time the smallpox pandemic had raged through southern Australia, it had also blanketed the whole of New South Wales and moved inexorably through the entire Murray Darling Basin.[46] Correspondingly it was sweeping up the Queensland coast and into Northern Australia. The devastation of eastern Australia was probably complete by the beginning of 1790 and now the disease began to pick its way slowly across the Nullabor and more quickly across the top end. The death toll in the arid and more remote areas may well have been less than elsewhere [47] but as we have seen from the brief discussion of population numbers in the arid areas, this would have had virtually no impact on the overall death rates. As we saw from the previous analysis, arid areas contained less than 2% of the Australian population, so even a nil death rate in arid areas would not have changed the overall picture.

The death rate and number of Australians killed by smallpox

Previous estimates of the death rates caused by smallpox have been fanciful underestimations that failed dismally to provide a logical analysis of the problem. Also, no attempt has ever been made to estimate the total number of Aboriginal Australians killed by the disease. However, having already in this paper arrived at a pre-1788 population estimate of around three million people, such an exercise can now be undertaken. In order to do this though, we must first make some estimate of the actual death rate caused by the smallpox plague.

The first undeniable fact that must be stated is that Australian Aboriginal society was a naïve population. By this it is meant that they had no previous exposure to European diseases such as smallpox and therefore had no resistance. More than this though, as Aboriginal people kept no domesticated animals apart from dingoes, and as marsupial animals essentially cannot communicate diseases to humans, Aboriginal people were therefore without doubt the most naïve population on Earth. There are many colonial accounts of how even the common cold often killed them.[48]

Where there had been accurately recorded contemporary observations of the death rates caused by smallpox on naïve populations, a death rate in the order of 90% was commonly indicated. In other words a very literal decimation of the population occurred. This is for instance supported by the death rates recorded in relation to the Khoikhoi people in South Africa when a smallpox epidemic broke out in Cape Town in 1713. The slaves and colonists at Cape Town suffered the usual European death rate of around 30%, but when the disease spread to the Khoikhoi, not 10% survived. Whole clans were annihilated and the few remaining people became known by the derisory term ‘Hottentots’.[49]

In the early 16th century the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in Central and South America was accompanied by smallpox. It then spread ahead of them like in Australia two hundred years later. The depopulation it caused also greatly facilitated the conquest of Central and South America, just as it did in Australia in the late 18th century. As a result of the smallpox pandemic in the new world, the death rate in Mexico was assessed as 74%,[50] whilst the death rate of the Inca people has been estimated at 90% or more. Similarly, when the first major outbreak of smallpox occurred on the eastern coast of North America around 1616, the Algonquin tribes of the Massachusetts area were reduced in population from 30,000 to 300, a death rate of 99%.[51]

Those wedded to more conservative previous estimates of the Australian Aboriginal death rate might want to argue the point, but such arguments need to state a clear rationale rather than being treated as received wisdom. For instance, what is known for certain, is that for children under five, pregnant women and those over sixty, smallpox was a virtual death sentence.[52] So at either end of the scale you have the virtual extinction of two generations.
If there was then only a 75% death rate in the remainder of the population this would still give an overall death rate of around 85%. Alternatively, if we accept the general death rate of 90% and deduct the 2% of Australians who were living in arid areas and the 3% living in Tasmania, we again end up at an 85% death rate. Whichever way you measure it, with a base population of three million people in Australia in 1788, an overall death rate of 85% would mean that more than two and a half million Australians died from the 1789 smallpox plague.[53]
This is an absolutely catastrophic figure and even if you reduced the base population estimate by a third (to two million) and the death rate by a third (to 60%) you still get 1.2 million dead Australians. Whichever way you look at it, it is the greatest single catastrophe in Australian history. Yet the total number of Australian deaths caused by the smallpox plague does not rate even a passing mention in our history books. But then again, history is written by the winners.

The destruction of social fabric by the smallpox plague

With the virtual wiping out of both the youngest and oldest generations plus the massive depopulation amongst all the other age groups, Aboriginal society was thrown into chaos. A great deal of cultural and ritual knowledge was lost along with the Elders who died. An entirely new generation had leadership responsibilities thrust upon them before their time.

Because of the forced abandonment of many previous more permanent village and settlement sites, and because their land stewardship responsibilities had to now be undertaken by vastly fewer people, tribes became much more nomadic than they had previously been. Over the forty six year period from the first smallpox plague in 1789 to the arrival of colonists in Port Phillip in 1835, the permanent village sites and the more robust and permanent types of Wurundjeri housing disappeared. Early settlers and historians therefore mistakenly assumed that this was the nomadic norm for the Wurundjeri, who had been accustomed to more of a semi-sedentary lifestyle prior to the smallpox holocaust.

Marriage arrangement which had traditionally been worked out a generation ahead through the process of mother-in-law gifting[54] were now in complete disarray. In all tribes, changes were forced in the traditional skin group marriage rules because of too few numbers in some totem groups.

For instance the Gunditjmara of Western Victoria had one of their four skin groups (Tiger Snake) virtually wiped out by the plague. The marriage rules therefore had to be modified so that the skin group with the most surviving members (Python) could marry into the two other remaining skin groups of Pelican and Quail. This meant Python people could now marry into either their traditional exogamous ‘right skin’ marriage group of Pelican, or marry ‘wrong skin’ into Quail. Many tribes developed similar ‘anomalous’ marriage rules that were later commented on and puzzled over by anthropologists and ethnographers as to why this should be so. [55]

In some areas such as the Gunnai people of Gippsland the traditional skin group marital rules were abandoned altogether. New rules of elopement and abduction were adopted so that ‘wrong skin’ marriages could be given post-hoc approval.[56 ]All a wrong-skin couple had to do was elope and come back a year later with a child, then all would be forgiven. But even this arrangement quickly broke down and abduction of women and girls from neighbouring tribes soon became the norm. As a result of these abductions intertribal conflicts escalated enormously.

This situation is accurately reflected in the observation made by William Buckley, the convict who escaped in 1803 and spent the next 32 years with the Wathaurung people of the Geelong area in Port Phillip. After his return to colonial life Buckley indicated to a missionary, the Reverend George Langhorn, that of the fifty violent payback deaths he had witnessed in his time with the tribe, only two of these incidents were unrelated to conflicts over women.[57]

Given another couple of hundred years on their own, the Australian Aboriginal population would have recovered to its former level and again stabilized at the natural carrying capacity of the land in the worst of seasons. The anomalous situations would also have gradually been accommodated into a new series of inter-tribal arrangements and agreed extensions of the Law. However the new settlers were not going anywhere and less than forty years later, when intertribal relationships were still in chaos, a second smallpox plague struck.

How the second smallpox plague of 1828 began

After the literal decimation of this first smallpox plague of 1789 it could of course be expected that the 10% or so who survived would have developed some resistance and passed this on to the next generation. However one could still expect that the resistance of Aboriginal people would still not be as great as amongst Europeans, who had experienced the disease for several hundreds of years. The death rate amongst Aboriginal people would therefore certainly be higher than the usual 30% death rate for Europeans and it would be reasonable to expect a death rate of no less than 50%.

The eminent Australian virologist Frank Fenner has previously claimed that the cause of the second smallpox plague of the late 1820’s was never determined.[58] Because of Fenner’s international status as a world expert on smallpox, the claim seems to have been accepted without question, but it is quite demonstrably wrong. The cause of the second outbreak was quite obvious and is confirmed by contemporaneous public records.

The new outbreak of smallpox had its origins in the arrival of the convict ship the ‘Bussorah Merchant’ at Sydney Cove in August 1828. After embarkation of a new crew member, who subsequently came down with the disease, others on board then became infected. This led to the deaths of another crew member, two convicts and the child of a guard, while the ship was still at sea. On arrival at Sydney Cove in early August 1828 the ship was not allowed to dock. It was instead placed in quarantine on the north shore of Sydney Harbour at Spring Cove, in what is now Manly. This was the first time in a subsequently long history that Spring Cove was used as a quarantine station.[59] So, how the eminent virologist Frank Fenner was able to miss or ignore this fact seems incomprehensible.

The Bussorah Merchant was then kept in quarantine for the next seven weeks with the schooner Alligator stationed alongside as a hospital ship. Those people who were symptomatic were kept on board the hospital ship whilst those that seemed well were encamped in tents on the north shore. A local tribal leader Boongarric was paid as a guard to keep local Aboriginal people away and convicts were also delegated as guards to the quarantined civilians on the north shore.

There were therefore obvious gaping flaws in the quarantine procedures with regard to the Aboriginal people who lived on the north shore, but it was equally obvious this was not the principal concern of the colonists. The quarantine procedures therefore ultimately proved to be quite successful for the settlers at Sydney Cove and no further cases were reported amongst the colonists. However it was of course an unmitigated disaster for Aboriginal people.

This was a well known public fact at the time because on August 15th 1828, the Sydney Gazette reported with the page two headline that: ‘Smallpox epidemic strikes Aboriginal people’.[60] One again a smallpox pandemic swept around Australia from its point of origin in Manley, this time causing probably 150,000 deaths. As we have already discussed, this represented half of the Australian population of 300,000 that remained after the first smallpox plague.

The impact of the smallpox plagues on Wurundjeri society

If we accept that the first smallpox plague literally decimated the Australian population, then by early 1790 the population of Woiwurung speaking people in the Melbourne area had gone from 20,000 to 2,000. When the second smallpox plague swept through in 1829 and halved the remaining Woiwurung population, a mere 1,000 Wurundjeri people were left from the original 20,000. As already indicated, the breakdown of marital arrangements between Kulin tribes and the escalation of intertribal conflicts resulted in virtual anarchy, and there was a reliable eye-witness to this whole process.

As already indicated, William Buckley was a convict who escaped from his work party at Sorrento in 1803. He was 27 years of age at the time and spent the next 32 years in the Geelong area with the Wathaurung people of the Kulin Nation. In 1835 Buckley presented himself to John Batman’s survey party and proved his identity by showing them his tattoos. Initially he had forgotten how to speak English. Buckley was quickly reabsorbed into colonial life, given a pardon and became something of a colonial celebrity. The story of his life with the natives was published soon after, with all the sensational details being eagerly absorbed by the colonial populace.

However it must be noted that Buckley was entirely illiterate in English and had become far more fluent in the Wathaurung tongue than in his native language. He had developed an intimate knowledge of Aboriginal culture and philosophy but despite this, the book that he subsequently collaborated on with John Morgan reflected virtually nothing of this nature. This may be partly due to the difficulty of translating some Aboriginal concepts into English, but there was also no audience for it. The book therefore tended to reflect aspects of tribal life that confirmed British assumptions and prejudices about Aboriginal people. To this end the book also included some obvious figments of Morgan’s fertile imagination.[61]

However despite this, the book did also accurately show the disruption to intertribal relationships caused by the massive depopulation of the smallpox plagues. Buckley himself had also been disfigured by the 1828 plague and he unmistakably described the symptoms of the smallpox disease as having caused ‘…a dreadful swelling of the feet and ulcerous sores and taking many lives‘. [62]

The Wurundjeri thought that settlers would help manage their estate

What the book by Morgan and Buckley did not in any way show, was Buckley’s intimate knowledge of how the totemic system guided Aboriginal land management. Totems had been dismissed by the British colonists as no more than heathen symbolism, and even today its role in ecological management is not well understood. Being a non-literate society, this totemically based ecological knowledge was passed on by being coded into song and enacted in a process called ‘singing country’. [63]

In other words as Aboriginal people moved through their land, they were constantly singing about the ecological relationships and stewardship tasks before them. Following the literal decimation of smallpox plagues there were of course now vastly fewer people to undertake stewardship of the land. So when John Batman arrived in Port Phillip seeking land and met with the Wurundjeri Elders on the Plenty River at Greensborough, it seemed to them like a perfectly good mutual arrangement.

To these Elders, Batman’s ‘treaty’ was a form of traditional Tanderem Ceremony. That is, a hospitality agreement whereby it was expected that the new settlers would share the land and share the curatorial responsibilities that went with it.64 [64]This was clearly the view that Buckley held because he repudiated Batman’s claim to have purchased the land. He indicated that such a purchase was inconsistent with Aboriginal culture because no single person or class of people in Aboriginal society had ‘…any superior right over the soil’.[65]

The Wurundjeri people were however soon to be bitterly disappointed in the assumptions they had made about sharing care of the land with the newcomers. The new settlers quickly demonstrated that they were completely ignorant on environmental matters, despoiled the land and behaved in appallingly uncivilized ways.[66] Some Wurundjeri, such as Jaga-Jaga, a brother of Headman Bebejern, fought back by burning the paddocks of some settlers they took particular objection to, and driving off their livestock. The Kulin people had already been given advance warning by Buckley to never kill a white man because it would result in massive and indiscriminate reprisals against men, women and children. [67]

In view of Buckley’s warning the Wurundjeri assiduously stuck to economic warfare in their attempts to drive out the settlers they disliked. However after the ‘Battle of Yering’ at Yarra Glen in 1840, which was the only armed conflict between the Wurundjeri and the colonists, resistance to the British invasion virtually ended.[68] By this time the population of the Wurundjeri had shrunk to only about 200 people. This now represented 99% of their original 20,000 population and it would get even worse over the next twenty years.


The first British settlers in Australia had no comprehension of Aboriginal culture, thought systems, philosophies and social organisation. Their observations and the conclusions they drew were quite naturally shaped by European thought systems, but this was also complemented by a very liberal dose of cultural arrogance. Aboriginal culture and society was therefore overwhelmingly dismissed by the British colonists as simple, primitive and pagan, when it was in fact none of these.

It is only in more recent decades that a closer understanding has emerged on how Aboriginal society across Australia was structured and organised to manage the environment, and this was done with stunning success. It is now more readily appreciated that ‘The Law’ was an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction which compelled people to care for their Country.[69]

Based on the premise that Aboriginal population was adapted to the carrying capacity of the land in the worst of seasons, this paper has offered a brief analysis that suggests the pre-1788 Australian population was in the order of 3 million people. Through a further examination of the death rates previously observed for naïve populations experiencing a smallpox epidemic, it is concluded that the Australian death rate from 1789 smallpox plague was in the order of 85% and resulted in the deaths of some 2 ½ million people.

The horrendous social impacts of this population loss were then also briefly examined, with special reference to the Wurundjeri people of the Yarra Valley region in Melbourne. In the past these deleterious impacts have scarcely been appreciated because of lingering fallacious assumptions about the nature of Aboriginal culture and society.

It is well past the time that our history books should properly acknowledge the massive effects of the smallpox holocausts that twice swept Australia in 1789 and 1828. This acknowledgement should not simply relate to the sheer number of Australians who died and of the death rates involved. As this paper has tried to show, the previous vast underestimations of Aboriginal population levels arose out of an institutionalized ignorance of the Aboriginal mind-set and culture.

This same institutionalized ignorance of Aboriginal culture inexorably led to our failure to recognise the horrendous social dislocation that directly resulted from the massive depopulation caused by smallpox. The dislocation witnessed by settlers, historians and anthropologists of the day was erroneously interpreted as being the ‘normal’ state of affairs, because the mindset driving Aboriginal culture was not understood. Disappointingly, many of these misinterpretations of traditional Aboriginal culture still insidiously persist to this day and they continue to be treated as received wisdom.

It shows how difficult it is to address the deeply embedded issues of ‘institutional racism’ that colour our view of history and the transmission of ideas to the next generation. These culturally based assumptions continue to fuel misinterpretations and misconceptions of our Aboriginal history and heritage which in turn continues to feed subtly into our educational systems.


1. Fleming, James (1803) A journal of Grimes’ survey: The Cumberland in Port Phillip January-February 1803, Wikipedia, p.3.

2. Sydney Gazette, (1828) Smallpox Epidemic Strikes Aboriginal People, 15th August 1828 p.2

3. Barrett, Charles (1936) Blackfellows in Australia, Sun Books, Melbourne, in Birrarung Database, Woiwod, M. (2012) Tarcoola Press, Melbourne, p.40.

4. Woiwod, M. (2012) Birrarung Database, Tarcoola Press, Melbourne p39.

5. Poulter, J. (2011) Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country, Red Hen, Melbourne, p.83.

6. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.126

7. Dingo, E. (2000) in Poulter, J. Op. Cit. p.84

8. Woiwod, M. (2012) Birrarung Database, Tarcoola Press, Melbourne, p.39

9. Op. Cit. p.40

10. Blow, R. (2012) The Basic Tenets of Wandjinist Religion, unpublished paper available on request from Jim Poulter .

11. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.150

12. Op. Cit. p.126

13. Stockton, E. (1993) Blue Mountains Dreaming, Three Sisters, Winmalee NSW p104

14. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.151

15. Meggitt, M. (1962) Desert People, Angus & Robertson, Melbourne, p.246

16 Blainey, G. (1983) The Triumph of the Nomads, Sun Books, South Melbourne p.106

17. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.140

18. Dawson, J. (1881) Australian Aborigines, George Robertson, Melbourne p.76

19. Sutton, P. (Ed.) (1988) Dreamings -The Art of Aboriginal Australia, Penguin, Ringwood p.6

20. Powell, M. W. & Hesline, R. (2010) Making Tribes? –Constructing Aboriginal Tribal Entities in Sydney and Coastal NSW from the Early Colonial Period to the Present. Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.96 (2) pp.115-14

21. Blainey, G. (1983) The Triumph of the Nomads, Sun Books, South Melbourne p.92

22. Wikipedia (2013) Aboriginal Tasmania,¬_Tasmanian p.4

23. Blainey, G. (1983) The Triumph of the Nomads, Sun Books, South Melbourne, p.223

24. Wilipedia, (2013) History of Queensland, ,¬_Tasmanian, p.2

25. Presland, G. (2001) Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, Harriland Press, Melbourne p.72

26. Op. Cit. p.37

27. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p.38

28. Woiwod, M. (2012) Birrarung Database, Tarcoola Press, Melbourne, p.160

29. Mear, C. (2008) The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.94, Part 1 pp.1-22, p.2

30. Bennett, M. (2009) Smallpox and Cowpox under the Southern Cross: The Smallpox Epidemic of 1789 and the Advent of Vaccination in Colonial Australia, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol.83, No.1 Spring 2009, pp.37-62

31. Mear, C. (2008) The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.94, Part 1 pp.1-22, p.8

32. Op. Cit. p.4

33. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p.38

34. Mear, C. (2008) The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.94, Part 1 pp.1-22, , p.6

35. Op Cit p.4

36. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney p.125

37 Dawson, J. (1881) Australian Aborigines, George Robertson, Melbourne P.80

38. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p127

39. Dawson, J. (1881) Australian Aborigines, George Robertson, Melbourne p.61

40 Woiwod, M. (2012) Birrarung Database, Tarcoola Press, Melbourne p.39

41. Presland, G. (2001) Aboriginal Melbourne: The Lost Land of the Kulin People, Harriland Press, Melbourne p.36

42. Thompson, K. (1985) A History of the Aboriginal people of East Gippsland, Land Conservation Council, Melbourne p.19

43. Howitt. A. (1904) The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, MacMillan & Co. London

44. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p127

45. Wikipedia (2013) Aboriginal Tasmania, , p.11

46. Mear, C. (2008) The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.94, Part 1 pp.1-22, , p.5

47. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p.116

48. Dawson, J. (1881) Australian Aborigines, George Robertson, Melbourne p.60

49. S.A.H.O. (2012) Smallpox Epidemic Strikes at the Cape, South African History Online,

50. Eddins, O. (2003) Plains Indian Smallpox, , p.1

51. Op. Cit. p.2

52. Mear, C. (2008) The origin of the smallpox outbreak in Sydney in 1789, Journal of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.94, Part 1 pp.1-22, , p.1

53. Poulter, J. (2011) Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country, Red Hen, Melbourne p.61

54. Meggitt, M. J. (1962) Desert People, Angus & Robertson, Melbourne p.266

55. Coutts, P. J. F. (1981) Readings in Victorian Prehistory, Volume 2, Victoria Archeological Survey, Ministry for Conservation, Victoria, p.viii

56. Howitt, A. W. (1904) The Native Tribes of South-East Australia, London: Macmillan, p.115

57. Tatz, C. (1999) Genocide in Australia, AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper No.8, p.8

58. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 9.125

59. Wikipedia, (2013) Sydney Heads, ,

60. Sydney Gazette, (1828) Smallpox Epidemic Strikes Aboriginal People, 15th August 1828 p.2

61. Wikipedia, (2013) William Buckley, p.4

62. Blainey, G. (1983) The Triumph of the Nomads, Sun Books, South Melbourne p.103

63. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney p.125

64. Poulter, J. (2011) Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country, Red Hen, Melbourne p.22

65. Flood, J. (2006) The Original Australians, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, p.94

66. Poulter, J. (2011) Sharing Heritage in Kulin Country, Red Hen, Melbourne, p.25

67. Woiwod, M. (2012) Birrarung Database, Tarcoola Press, Melbourne p.133

68. Op. Cit. p125

69. Gammage, W. (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.2

Jim Poulter
November 2013

Jim Poulter (PhD. M.S.W. Dip.Crim. Dip.Soc.Stud.) is a social worker and author of several Aboriginal theme books. These include illustrated children’s books, children’s novels, local histories and academic texts and papers. Jim’s forebears first settled in Wurundjeri Country in 1840 and established a close relationship with the local Aboriginal people. Jim has continued this involvement over his own lifetime, working closely with a number of celebrated Elders to strengthen knowledge of and pride in our Aboriginal heritage. Jim is probably best known for having some thirty years ago established that the tribal football game of Marngrook was a precursor to Australian Football.


There is a lot of complaints about the "crowded" curriculum, but the information presented in this article should be taught in every Australian school as part of our history. I found Australian history to be rather dull at school and have since learned a lot more that should have been taught that is far more interesting. An article like this should be at the foundation along with the nature of Aboriginal society and how they lived on this continent (expanding on themes outlined in this article).

It really has filled a lot of the holes in my knowledge regarding early European settlement and the end of the indigenous culture & civilization as it was.

Colonialist were stealing land for indigenous people for their communities, and for their cattle. It was spread of incarceration and destruction of the traditional owners. They were kept prisoners under a law of "Protector of Aborigine People" which was Orwellian for the systematic entrapment, isolation, and the destruction of their culture and way of life. The Coorie people believe that smallpox was introduced into the Murray region for the deliberate population control of the region. I once went to an in-training session about teaching Aborigine children, and this was their belief. With all the other injustices and atrocities happening because of colonial invasion and submission, it's not impossible to believe.

Not impossible at all to believe that smallpox was deliberately introduced into Australia because there is evidence this was deliberately done in America. I was however not able to find any evidence that it was deliberately introduced into Australia, but what I did find that there has been a collusive attempt to deny and cover up the fact that it was introduced. Again I do not think this has been a conspiracy to conceal a consciously planned act, but to deny responsibility for the stupidity, neglect and apathy that caused the holocaust on Aboriginal people. They simply didn't care if it got out to the Aboriginal community, their only thought was to protect the colonial settlement from the disease. Subsequent generations of historians have gone to great lengths to create specious theories of how smallpox came to Australia, but this cannot be taken as proof of an original genocidal act. It can only be taken as proof that succeeding generations have a strong wish to deny that colonisation had genocidal consequences.

Mark O'Connor writes: At “The Conversation” today I have added the following Comment to Gregory Melleuish’s article, "Australia’s Constitution works because it doesn’t define national identity."

A major underlying problem is that any fair recognition of Aborigines should include their right to be consulted on future immigration. Their central grievance is that they were immigrated upon without their consent (a gentler phrase than "invaded") and thereby reduced to a vulnerable minority within their own country. They are now at risk of being reduced to a minority among the minorities in their own country. That is why the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee loudly demanded an end to all plans for "higher population growths in Australia", saying "We have lost enough. . . . Australia's population is bearable at this point in time, but further ecocide of this country will leave nothing for no one." (See my book This Tired Brown Land pp. 288 ff.)

Their problem is that the business Right, including developers and property investors, wants no interference in its plans to get rich through population growth, no matter at what costs to environment and urban quality of life. And the far Left wants to give away shares in Australia to the whole world, arguing confusedly that the only way to assuage their sense of guilt for having stolen Australia from its Aboriginal peoples is to invite in the rest of the world to share the plunder.