Australia in the 1780s

The smallpox epidemic

From April to May 1789 an outbreak of smallpox devastated Aboriginal clans around the New South Wales colony. It has been estimated that somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of the Aboriginal population in the Sydney area died within two years of the British arrival. The Cadigal people, who are the recognised owners of Sydney Cove, suffered great losses from the disease.

Arabanoo (1759–1789), a Cadigal man who had been captured by Governor Phillip (1738–1814) and imprisoned and subsequently released, died from smallpox after caring for others who had contracted the disease. He was buried in the governor's garden. Arabanoo reported that families had fled both to the north and to the interior of the country.

Aboriginal people had never experienced smallpox and had no immunity against the disease. As a result smallpox spread rapidly though communities as far away as the Murray and Darling River areas. The origin of this epidemic remains uncertain, whether it came with the First Fleet or whether it spread from the north of the country, introduced by the Macassan traders from the south-west corner of Sulawesi (one of the islands that makes up Indonesia).

The great number of deaths within the Indigenous population had devastating effects on the social organisation of their clans. The groups most affected within a clan were Elders, pregnant women and children under five. Those least affected were people aged between five and fourteen. The local Eora people referred to the disease as 'gal-gal-la'.

A snapshot of 1788

  • January
    • Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson.
    • The wife of Sergeant Thomas Whittle of the marines gave birth to the first non-Indigenous child born in the colony.

  • February
    • The first female convicts arrived at Port Jackson.
    • The Court of Criminal Justice Jurisdiction sat for the first time in the colony.

  • March
    • Lieutenant Philip Gidley King took formal possession of Norfolk Island.

  • June
    • The last of the cattle that arrived on the First Fleet strayed from the settlement. Some of the animals were still being found seven years later.

  • November
    • A colonial settlement was established at Rose Hill.

  • December
    • Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo, a Cadigal man, to find out about Cadigal language and customs.


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