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.
It was not just the sheer loss of life caused by this first recorded epidemic that was devastating; it also had immediate and ongoing social, cultural, and psychological effects. In the short-term, sufferers were struck by a malaise that made gathering food and water for themselves and their dependents impossible, leaving them at risk of starvation and even more vulnerable to the disease. As Aboriginal people had no prior experience of smallpox, they would not have known to isolate the sick in order to contain the spread of the virus. Nor was isolation feasible, given Aboriginal people’s communal dwellings and mores. It was only after the virus reached epidemic proportions, with too many bodies to bury, that Aboriginal people began to flee their own families and Country, many heading north, spreading the disease further afield.
Women were also more likely to contract the virus than men, and it usually killed pregnant women. This gendered death-toll, approaching 2:1, would have had longer term effects on kin-relationships and individuals’ marriage prospects, and unduly impeded the population of small clans over multiple generations. The loss of Elders, both male and female knowledge-holders, might have also disrupted each clan’s ability to pass down important history, Dreaming stories and land-management practices, as well as their ability to conduct ceremonies and use traditional practices to heal ailments.
The uneven spread of the disease had long-term effects on broader politics, because the Eora nation comprises a number of clans who were affected to differing degrees. For example, the British learned that Colebee’s Cadigal clan had been ‘reduced…to three persons’, so were ‘compelled to unite with some other’ clan to ‘prevent the extinction of their tribe’. The Cammeraygal people from north of the harbour, meanwhile, had seemed ‘the most numerous and powerful’ clan, presumably because they ‘suffered less from the ravages of the smallpox’.
The epidemic was also psychologically damaging, both immediately and in the long-term. Perhaps the most heart-rending response was that of Arabanoo, another British captive. Upon seeing the lifeless harbour, ‘He lifted up his hands and eyes in silent agony for some time, at last he exclaimed, “All dead! All dead!” and hung his head in mournful silence’. He, too, soon died from the virus, catching it from two children, Nanbaree and Boorong, who, after being brought back to the hospital and recovering, became the first Aboriginal children adopted by British colonists.
The legacy of smallpox
The origins of this first smallpox epidemic are not clear and still contested. The British blamed French explorers, but historians now debate whether it was introduced by Makassan trepangers in northern Australia or the British themselves (even though none had smallpox at the time, they did bring ‘variolous matter’ with them to use for inoculation). A second smallpox epidemic swept through Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and along the Murray-Darling Basin in 1824-32, and a third struck Western Australia and South Australia in the 1860s, each epidemic most likely resulting in up to 30 per cent of lives lost [PDF, 11.3MB]. There were a number of smallpox outbreaks in the early twentieth century, which saw compulsory vaccination programs quickly implemented at Aboriginal reserves.
Smallpox left an enduring legacy in affected Aboriginal societies. Ngarrindjeri women remember the disease as a sudden ‘wind’ that blew the sickness through their communities, and Cammeraygal man Mahroot grew up knowing it as ‘devil devil’ [PDF, 1.24], meaning ‘it’s all over’. The Wiradjuri called smallpox ‘thunna, thunna’ and ‘blamed Captain Sturt for its introduction’; they were worried that it was a portent of a ‘grievous calamity’ that would ‘destroy them’. Such apocalyptic language reveals the psychological trauma wrought by the disease, and how Aboriginal people grappled to understand it.
In addition to smallpox, Aboriginal people were disproportionately affected by other introduced diseases such as measles and tuberculosis – the disease which caused the greatest number of Aboriginal deaths in the nineteenth century and remains prevalent in the Northern Territory. Acute respiratory diseases such as influenza also had serious effects: during the 1919 Spanish Flu epidemic, Queensland’s Euraba Aboriginal Station lost 54 of its 100 residents. The impact of these diseases was increased by colonial governments’ protection policies, which removed Aboriginal people to stations and missions, where poor housing, sanitation, clothing and food made them more susceptible to disease.
What can the 1789 epidemic tell us today?
What can we learn about today’s pandemic from the first recorded epidemic to afflict Aboriginal people? Tens of thousands of years of isolation meant Aboriginal people were both immunologically vulnerable to introduced diseases like smallpox and inexperienced with containing their spread. Unlike the British, they did not know to isolate those who were infectious, nor how to prevent secondary bacterial infections leading to ulcers and blindness. Today, tailored health-literacy campaigns aimed at different sectors of the community are crucial to informing Aboriginal communities on a range of diseases. These include how to contain a disease’s spread, and, for stigmatised diseases such as sexually transmitted infections or liver disease, how to address notions of shame and empower individuals to take action.
Malnourishment and inadequate hygiene also exacerbated smallpox symptoms, and left those who survived vulnerable to bacterial infections. Just as, in 1789, many Eora people became malnourished because the virus inhibited their ability to gather fresh food and collect water, in many remote (and not-so-remote) communities today, nutritious fresh food can be still be difficult to obtain. This may be due to distance and unaffordability, or difficulty of storage when few people in remote communities have functioning refrigerators and stoves. Studies suggest that governments should shift focus from nutrition awareness campaigns, aimed at changing Aboriginal people’s attitude to food, to adopting holistic approaches to food security that address unemployment, transport costs, and providing the infrastructure necessary to making fresh food accessible and practical, especially during the current lockdowns.
Finally, the 1789 smallpox epidemic also impacted on Eora individuals and clans differently. Governments and health professionals have long recognised that within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particular groups are especially vulnerable to infectious disease – mainly the elderly and children. Yet, for Indigenous people, concern for Elders is not limited to their susceptibility, it is also because of the traditional status they bear in communities, the cultural knowledge and memory they hold and pass down to future generations, and the crucial role many continue to play in keeping families and communities together. To be effective, COVID-19 policies must be tailored to the different needs within and between Indigenous communities, include Indigenous perspectives, and be sensitive to Aboriginal memories of earlier epidemics that blew through our communities with devastating consequences.
Dr Shino Konishi is a historian based in both the School of Humanities and the School of Indigenous Studies at UWA. She is Aboriginal, and identifies with the Yawuru people of Broome.