Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Research Note: Impact of Smallpox on Aboriginal New England

It is now well established that diseases brought by Europeans extended beyond the moving frontier wreaking havoc on Aboriginal communities still distant from European settlement. One such disease was smallpox, with outbreaks starting in 1789 and then again around 1829.

Discussion on smallpox has focused on two questions.

The first is where the smallpox came from. There are two schools. One said that it came from the settlement at Sydney, a second from Macassan visitors harvesting trepang in Northern Australia. The second question is the scale of the death toll. Both questions have become embroiled to some degree in the continuing history wars.

A related question is the nature of transmission mechanisms, a question that links to the structure of and relations between Aboriginal groups. For example, could smallpox in fact have come from Northern sources in the required time horizons given geography and the pattern of Aboriginal relations? Again, could smallpox have spread in the way sometimes described given geography and the pattern of Aboriginal relations?

I am interested in the impact of smallpox on the Aboriginal peoples of Northern NSW, the broader New England. The questions as to who might be responsible and why fall outside my immediate scope except to the degree it affects what happened in New England.

Based on my very preliminary work, my present tentative conclusions are:
·         The first smallpox epidemic came from the Sydney settlement. Its hard to fit the geography otherwise. I still have an open mind on the second.
·         In broad terms, the impact of smallpox was geographically patchy because of the particular dispersed structure of Aboriginal life in combination with the transmission pattern. It hit Sydney hard because you had a high population concentration meaning that people could mix during the contagion period. For smaller groups, infection would depend upon someone one coming while contagious and then infecting the group, with on-transmission depending on someone getting to the next group while contagious. In theory, I suppose, you could have it carried on possum coats or artifacts. The process would be easier if you had largish adjoining populations that mixed such as along the Murray.
·         In the first round, infection appears to have reached the lower Hunter but not beyond. The 1829+ second round was geographically broader, but perhaps not so intense. I say this because the descriptions of Aboriginal people across the North after 1831 that I have seen do not appear to contain references to smallpox markings. 

As I said, very tentative. I stand to be rebutted.

Source Notes

N G Butlin, Macassans and Aboriginal smallpox : the '1789' and '1829' epidemics, Australian National University 1984
Judy Campbell, "Smallpox in aboriginal Australia, the early 1830s", Historical Studies, Volume 21, 1985 - Issue 84
Judy Campbell, Invisible invaders : smallpox and other diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780-1880 ,.Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic. 2002.
Peter J. Dowling, VIOLENT EPIDEMICS: Disease, conflict and Aboriginal population collapse as result of European contact in the Riverland of South Australia, 1990, MA thesis in Biological Anthropology, Department of Prehistory and Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, Australian National University Canberra ACT Accessed online 17 May 2017 file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/OWNER/My%20Documents/Downloads/b17470511_Dowling_Peter_J.pdf
C 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, 2008
Michael O’Rourke, The Kamilaroi Lands: North-central New South Wales in the early 19th century, Michael O’Rourke, Griffith 1997
Jim Poulter, “The smallpox holocaust that swept Aboriginal Australia. - Red hot echidna spikes are burning me”, (We) can do better, 2 March 2014
Chris Warren, “Was Sydney's smallpox outbreak of 1789 an act of biological warfare against Aboriginal tribes?” Ockham's Razor, ABC Radio National, Thursday 17 April 2014 http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/was-sydneys-smallpox-outbreak-an-act-of-biological-warfare/5395050   Accessed 17 May 2017


Johnb said...

The Globalisational history of Smallpox and its consequences is a shockingly fascinating history in itself Jim. I believe, as suggested in your article, that it was the structure of Aboriginal society itself that may have turned out to be their best and most important initial defense following the introduction of Smallpox to Australia. The documented effect in other differently structured societies was nothing short of catastrophic.

Jim Belshaw said...

Evening, JB. I hadn't realised until I started looking at the Aboriginal history just how devastating smallpox could be in societies with zero immunity. Of course I knew in a general sense, but not the specifics. To extend my thesis, I need to know more about transmission mechanisms and incubation/infection periods. It also helps to know a bit about geography.

If you didn't click through on the links in the sources, Peter Dowling's thesis has some especially good stuff on the impact of disease etc in one defined geographic area.

Johnb said...

Not many Masters commence with an opening stanza in Anglo-Saxon Jim. Peter Dowling very quickly sets out the veritable 4 Horsemen of the Apocolypse that hit vulnerable communities. A much more personal Guns, Germs and Steel experience for Peter with his deep family connections to his area of interest. My thanks for the reference.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, johnB! :)