The Epidemics That Ravaged Post-Contact Aborigines

In the age of COVID it should be remembered that there have been much worse epidemics and pandemics. If the colonial era Aborigines had survived and reproduced at the same rate as their white contemporaries, they would number several millions today in a very different country.

Fatal Contact – How Epidemics  Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples is the dreadful story of how disease,  bringing agonising death to the bush, killed a large part of theindigenous  population between about 1789 and Federation and at a much lesser rate into modern times. Mostly it was due to world, or at least Pacific,  pandemics. Smallpox appears to have been the main killer, but measles, then lung maladies like influenza. pneumonia and tuberculosis, also had a lethal impact. This vast, tragic story is reasonably well known, but does not lend itself to media attention and has been unpopular with academic historians, partly because it can be technically difficult, but also because the main interest is on more clearly anti-colonial themes and massacres.

The background  of Peter Dowling’s Fatal Contact is as much in archaeology and biological anthropology than Australian History and has a strong medical and scientific component. Its general content resembles that of Judy Campbell’s Invisible Invaders – Smallpox and Other Diseases in Colonial Australia 1780-1880 (MUP 2002), the only other substantial recent book on Aboriginal illness.

Dowling’s book is meatier and more detailed than Campbell’s and gives more attention to diseases other than smallpox.  He is wary of numbers but also of the 233-year-old debate about the origin of  the smallpox.

On some estimates, savage smallpox epidemics in the 1780s (showing in Sydney in 1789) and again  around 1828-32 and in the remote outback 1860s may each have killed half the Aboriginal population of Australia. They were the biggest influence in reducing it from as many  as a million in 1780  to around 100,000  a century later.  Dowling accepts a 1788 population of “more than  a  million”, though others have respectably estimated it at nearer half that.

The 1789 date of the smallpox outbreak seems to have been a coincidence, not implicating the First Fleeters. The indigenous population  fell to a low of 74,000 in 1933, defined as people of half or more Aboriginal  descent or living in the Aboriginal manner. It then began to increase, and today the Aboriginal population is about 800,000, due in part to much  more liberal definition of Aboriginal in recent times and rapid  growth in the part-European population. The earlier  figures are little more than careful guesstimates-because so little was known of the people or indeed of the country in those distant days.

At least as dire in reducing  population , however, was venereal (sexually transmitted) disease, which was extremely common and caused both lasting agony and destruction of affected women’s fertility. These diseases seem to have been unknown in Austrailia before 1788, but were common among both races after that. Convicts certainly introduced  a big share but it also came from visiting Indonesian fishermen in the north and seamen such as sealers and whalers in the south.

Once introduced, “VD”, as it was known, galloped through Aboriginal society. This is a delicate subject. Dowling mentions “prostitution” but the word is  harsh.  “Lending” of women to visitors in exchange for a gift was customary in traditional indigenous society, seen as socially binding in a thinly peopled land of tiny communities  where women were pledged to husbands at birth, married early and men typically had two or three wives, if not more, who they virtually owned. This was not that different from pre-historic customs elsewhere, but coarsened when the outside world crashed in on an isolated society.

Most of the convicts were young, single men and sexual intercourse with indigenous girls became a way of life, especially on the grazing stations that covered much of southern Australia within about fifty years of the First Fleet.  Most of this contact  was agreed and consensual but enough was outside the rules for it to be a major cause of frontier conflict.  

Dowling does not mention this aspect, or that the Aborigines could take murderous revenge on anyone who interfered with their women without male permission and guidelines. Nor does he acknowledge that boss squatters and their sons could be as much involved as a pimply  newly arrived thief from the English slums.

The resulting fatality from VD cannot be reasonably measured. However, in these early pioneering times the steep but seemingly  mysterious decline in Aboriginal numbers, especially of children, was often noted  in private and official records. Severe infant mortality was yet another cause of depopulation.

How much was colonial society culpable for the disaster?

As so often there is a mix of causes, but the overwhelming one was that Aborigines had little or no  immunity to new diseases, especially in epidemic form. This was especially calamitous  with smallpox, the early great destroyer, to which Europeans had long developed substantial immunity. The white newcomers were mostly immune, but smallpox devastated much of the newly discovered Pacific in the same years. Earlier, it’s impact in the colonial Americas had been perhaps even worse.

Dowling  avoids judgment on the origins of the Australian smallpox epidemics but the information he provides suggests it was the long-suspected Indonesian fishermen visiting the northern coasts. There is substantial evidence of visiting seamen from Makassar (a province of  Sulawesi ) carrying the disease and of the indigenous song lines and trading routes that would carry it south. He rejects as scientifically unlikely a rival theory, that the seeming smallpox was actually a chickenpox variant, mutating on the First Fleet voyage. He barely mentions some of the  other theories.

Whites, too, suffered from  diseases other than smallpox,  but far fewer of them and with far less death. Whites had much more inherited immunity and were practiced at avoiding and treating these diseases, in as far as they could be treated at all.

Aborigines only gradually acquired the survival and management  skills. Aboriginal resistance to imported diseases increased over time too, with more survivors acquiring immunity, but new challenges arose. TB became a scourge when the white population ballooned with the Gold Rush. The British fashion of the day for TB treatment was for patients to  take long sea trips and move to warmer climates.  Many of these came to Australia,  germs and all.

As Aborigines spent more time in the towns, alcohol and tobacco became much more available and there was more of it in the bush too; many Aborigines (and whites) became addicted, with yet more  destructive  consequences.

Nearly a century and a half after 1788, the Aboriginal  greater susceptibility to imported disease was evident with the Spanish Flu epidemic that followed  World War 1 and, at the time of writing, Covid’s damage, especially in remote bushland, was feared though still unknown.

How much blame was due to colonialism? Perhaps in one sense all the blame; the common but easy virtuous argument being that “we shouldn’t have been here at all”. In another  sense, not much. Dowling  is at pains to identify and explain the early indigenous vulnerability to diseases to which they had no or weak immunity, due to historic lack of exposure. Other formerly isolated Pacific societies new to the world at large suffered this way too, with death bringing massive loss of population. Government “oppression”, so often suspected as causing indigenous ills, was hardly a factor, but nevertheless – as so often – in retrospect governments could have spent much more, especially on accommodation for the sick.

Dowling presents a grisly picture of conditions for the sick in rough early institutions such as the Wyballenna  refuge for the Tasmanian Aborigines on Flinders Island and new “settlement” refuges in Victoria, when farming took root on the traditional lands.  (He does not mention other problems there, such as the appropriate role for the healthier mixed-race people who were appearing in greater numbers – governments did not want to pay for them;  or  the appropriate treatment of child or polygamous marriage.  Like many historians, he hardly  mentions  the complicating mixed race issue  at all.)

The meagre state of medical knowledge or practice anywhere two centuries ago is  hardly comprehensible today. The  crucial role of germs, for example, was  not appreciated until the middle of the nineteenth century. Until then  doctors still blamed bodily misfunctions, believing the “four humours”  must be in balance, a  belief going back to ancient Greece. “Bleeding” patients was typical treatment.

Dowling says Aboriginal “clever  men” had cures for some the few ailments of pre-colonial times, but for the new diseases people blamed sorcery, variously ascribed to whites, rival tribes or supernatural forces.

Fatal Contact – How Epidemics  Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples
by Peter Dowling

Monash University Publishing, 2021, 306 pp, $34.95

Robert Murray is a journalist and author and frequent contributor to Quadrant

  • lbloveday

    “….visiting seamen from Makassar (a province of Sulawesi )”
    Makassar is a city of 1.5 million people and is the capital of the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi, having previously been the capital of the State of East Indonesia.

  • Botswana O’Hooligan

    The first few paragraphs make one ask, what about diseases introduced from contact with the Malay people for the Portuguese were in Malaya in the early 1500’s and so too the Dutch in Indonesia about then. Those of us who were involved in Coastal Surveillance when it first started flew at low level around our Northern and Western coastline and saw first hand where those peoples erected stone structures to smoke shellfish, beche de mer, and probably fish, huge middens of shells, and stuff certainly not built by a hunter gathering race. That is nicely explained further in but then begs the question of “if the Malayan and Indonesian people had diseases introduced into their countries almost 300 years before Australia was settled and those people intermingled with our Aboriginals, a perfectly human trait anywhere and observed in the build and physical characteristics of people from FNQ around to the NW of WA, and the present day Aboriginals state that they were/are one Nation, then the people of an integrated nation would intermingle and thus spread those diseases.” That didn’t happen and thus indicates that the Aboriginals weren’t “one Nation” and shoots their argument down in flames.

  • Claude James

    The British Invasion gave Aborigines the best chance they ever had of living properly flourishing lives.
    That’s the entire story.

  • rosross

    A major factor in low Aboriginal numbers in the first place was the practice of infanticide, something experienced by the British elsewhere but never at the level it was seen amongst Aboriginal peoples.

    The British worked to end infanticide which no doubt helped to compensate for the numbers who died of disease.

    However, there are also many reports from the earliest times of respiratory diseases, no doubt due to a lack of clothing, blankets and adequate shelter in Winter. Something else the British worked to address.

  • wdr

    The statistics here may be questionable, although of course the size of the Aboriginal population pre-Contact is unknowable. The estimate given in the 1970s by experts, about 350,000 in 1788, seems most accurate, not some much higher figure. Diseases to which the Aborigines had no immunity, introduced by the Europeans , obviously was an important factor in reducing the Aboriginal population, But the nature of the society of nomadic hunter-gatherers meant that excessive mouth were disposed of, i.e., infanticide and the killing of the elderly, while there must have been many deaths through diseases here pre-1788, as well as from periodic natural disasters, heat waves, fires, etc. etc. and from tribal warfare. Probably anything more than broad estimates will never be known.(William Rubinstein)

  • Alistair

    I have read many old documents dating back to first settlement in South Australia and it is clear that the first Protectors were extremely concerned about the declining Aboriginal population, but were at a complete loss to explain just why it was happening. This was not from some ignorance of disease and other factors … its just that it was so complex, and the information from the Aborigines themselves was so contradictory. Consider that they tried to keep accurate statistics of births and deaths (published annually) but the taboo on using the name of a deceased person meant that they were not necessarily told who had died who hadn’t from one census to the next. Simple complications like that. I’m guessing that the main contributing factor was the different attitude between Aborigines and whites to death and disease, and hence to medicine and healing. You cannot provide health care to a group who believes all deaths are the result of sorcery. Visit the Alice Springs hospital or any remote area health clinic and you will find that the provision of health care hasn’t substantially broken down those barriers even now. Death is still largely attributed to sorcery, and unhealthy lifestyles are dismissed as irrelevant.
    Try this book size … https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33259405-voices-from-the-past

  • Alistair

    Just to emphasis how complicated things were consider these two quotes relating to SA demographics . The first from Howitt dating to the very early days of colonization. …

    “In hard summers the new-born children were all eaten by the Kaura [Kaurna] tribe in the neighbourhood of Adelaide; this might be inferred from the remarkable gaps that appear in the ages of the children.”

    Note that some of the “gaps” noted by the Adelaide doctor quoted here actually predate settlement suggesting infanticide is actually a long-established cultural response to hard times. And note that even when rations were being provided widely across the State – in 1865 …

    “The returns show three births, viz., two at Chowilla, and one at Overland Corner, the mothers remaining at the stations to receive rations during the period of nursing. This is a remarkable and gratifying fact, as in this district for years past, every living child appears to have been destroyed immediately after birth”

    I’m not saying that infanticide was the main factor in the demographic decline here, but I would say that culturally, the Aborigines did not really identify as a cultural group, and therefore could not act as a group to stem the decline. They acted as they have always acted – in the self-interest of the individual clans.

  • subrosa

    In Three Expeditions into the Interior of
    Eastern Australia, Vol 2 (of 2), by Thomas Mitchell, in the section concerning an “Inhabited Tomb” describe how, in South Eastern Australia, some tribes kept open tombs, which relatives were required to attend and sleep near. Contact with dead bodies could well have produced the kind of devastating bacterial infection that would wipe out whole families, as described by William Buckley I believe (off the top of my head). Add to this the incredible inter-tribal violence, low birth rates, introduced diseases, and the rejection of children fathered/mothered by Europeans, whom they had regular friendly contact with (and their offspring not being considered tribal Aboriginal as a result) and you have a seemingly vanishing population. We also underestimate how easily some Aboriginal people could have blended into European society or the existence of mixed race communities.

  • Daffy

    I note with demographic interest that Aboriginal men had two or three wives. Surely it was a half to a third of Aboriginal men had two or three wives. The others doing without, I guess. That would make for some pretty unhappy young men, one would assume.

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