In her review of Fires Flood Plague: Australian writers respond to 2020, Adele Dumont referred to ‘the impact of the 1789 smallpox epidemic’ in the nascent colony at Port Jackson. While there is no doubting that this disease was a terrible experience for the Indigenous people (with a major effect on the local population), and while it must have contributed seriously to the level of anxiety among the colonists and convicts, it is in fact highly unlikely to have been smallpox. I wish reviewers (and others) would read more widely and not lazily repeat outdated notions.
Even the early and astute chronicler, Watkin Tench, reported that it was ‘like’ smallpox (he did not and could not identify it more specifically). Tench wondered impressively about its origins, since no smallpox had been introduced into the colony for a very long time. The reality was that not one of the British settlers succumbed to the disease (especially no children, who are especially vulnerable to smallpox), despite the fact that some of them had exceedingly close contact with the victims. That outcome would have been impossible if the illness really had been smallpox. The far more likely diagnosis would have been chickenpox, which virtually every colonist would have carried in their nervous system as a residue of childhood infection. When some of them, in the stress of quotidian colonial life, developed ‘shingles’, the children would have developed chickenpox and then passed it into the Aboriginal community, which, in all probability, had no previous experience of that disease. We need to recall that as chickenpox (varicella) and smallpox (variola) had been distinguished only as recently as 1767, an insight about which the colonial surgeons would have been unaware, the early confusion is understandable. But this is no reason for modern historians to perpetuate it.
This has been published, in corroborative detail, previously (see Hunter & Carmody’s ‘Estimating the Aboriginal Population in Early Colonial Australia: The Role of Chickenpox Reconsidered’ in The Australian Economic History Review (2015); and a number of ABC Ockham’s Razor broadcasts including 19 September 2010).
John Carmody, Roseville, NSW
Adele Dumont replies:
As historian Billy Griffiths notes in his essay in Fires Flood Plague (which I quote in my review), controversy over what is routinely referred to as Australia’s ‘1789 smallpox epidemic’ centres on its origins. It is unclear whether the disease was transmitted to Indigenous populations by the British – either inadvertently or in a deliberate act of biological warfare – or, alternatively, by Macassan seafarers. That this disease was indeed smallpox, I confess I did not realise was also a contested matter. I have therefore taken this opportunity to update myself on this chapter of our history.
It seems to me quite a stretch to label the smallpox theory an ‘outdated notion’. Richard Hingston floated the chickenpox theory in 1985, but this was rebutted by virologist Frank Fenner. John Carmody’s own more recent attempt to reintroduce the chickenpox theory has been rebuffed by Chris Warren (the two sources Carmody provides in his letter refer back to himself). As recently as 2020, historian Henry Reynolds describes the question of the 1789 epidemic’s causes as ‘a real mystery’, but makes no reference whatsoever to the possibility of the disease being chickenpox.
For a more detailed discussion of the various debates surrounding the epidemic, including arguments in favour of the smallpox theory: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/smallpox-outbreak-of-sydney27s-past/5383312
For a discussion of the 1789 epidemic’s possible causes: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-29/coronavirus-and-australias-first-pandemic-caused-by-smallpox/12099430