COVID-19: Indigenous perspectives
What can we learn from the first smallpox epidemic and its impact on Aboriginal people?
With reference to Sydney’s 1789 smallpox epidemic, Shino Konishi invites us to consider what history can teach us in designing responses to COVID-19 that take into account the specific vulnerabilities of Indigenous people and are tailored to the needs of different communities.
‘An extraordinary calamity’
Before outsiders arrived in Australia, Aboriginal people had lived with infectious diseases such as trachoma, yaws and hepatitis B for thousands of years. They had never been exposed to smallpox (Variola major), however, a diseasethat ravaged Britain in the eighteenth century. George Worgan, surgeon on the First Fleet, which established the first colony in Sydney in 1788, exclaimed that the local Eora people ‘seemingly enjoy uninterrupted Health, and live to a great Age’. Yet, by April the following year, smallpox had devastated the Aboriginal people of the Sydney area and its surrounds.
Where once Sydney Harbour pulsed with the sights and sounds of Eora women singing as they fished from their canoes and of men casting lines from the rocks, now it reeked of death. Daily, bodies were found ‘either in excavations of the rock, or lying upon the beaches and points of the different coves’. Until then, the Eora had steadfastly avoided the British officers; now the outsiders met children and old people too weak to try ‘escape’, some found still sitting alongside their dead kin. Famine and hunger had evidently ‘superadded to [the] disease’, and left the British with ‘little hope’ that survivors would recover. Several sick individuals were taken back to a ‘separate hut at the hospital’, and soon distress drove others to the colony.
None of the British contracted the disease, because they had either survived it and become immune or been inoculated. In contrast, Governor Phillip learnt from Wangal man Bennelong (whom the British had kidnapped in the hope he would become an intermediary) that during the epidemic ‘one half of those who inhabit this part of the country died’. It wasn’t until early June 1789 that the British finally saw Aboriginal canoes return to the harbour, and encountered a number of families whose pock-marked faces suggested they had recovered from the virus.
Smallpox and its effects
Prior to its eradication in 1980, smallpox was one of the most lethal diseases, having killed 300 million people in the twentieth century alone. The first symptoms were high fever and chills, headaches, prostration, backaches and vomiting. This was followed by the telltale skin rash, which developed large pustules, often scarring the skin, especially on the face, palms of the hand and soles of the feet, as well as eruptions in the membranes of the mouth and throat. These were not only painful, but also released the virus into one’s saliva, rendering it highly contagious and causing the smallpox to spread by coughing or sneezing. Survivors who were undernourished or lacked adequate hygiene might also experience blindness from ulcerated corneas and develop bacterial infections in the lesions on the legs and feet.