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The arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 changed the lifestyle of the Indigenous peoples forever. The first Indigenous people to be affected by the arrival of the British were the Eora, the Dharug and other coastal peoples to the north and south of Sydney. They had their lands taken from them, their men hunted and killed, and their families and clans destroyed by murder and disease. This chapter will look at the biggest killer of Aboriginal people; the introduction of European diseases, including smallpox, cholera, influenza, measles, tuberculosis, syphilis and the common cold.

Traditional Aboriginal medicine

Before the arrival of the Macassan traders and the Europeans, the Indigenous peoples had been relatively free from diseases, except for eye and skin complaints. Indigenous spiritual doctors were called on to cure sicknesses and injuries. Plants were crushed and soaked in water to cure stomach troubles or snakebites, and heat was applied to treat aches and pains. Broken limbs and eye troubles were more difficult to cure and rarely healed well. Refer Image 1

The death of a person who was not killed by fighting or old age was believed to have been caused by 'magic' from an enemy. The spiritual doctors were responsible for finding the enemy and cause of death, but they could do nothing to prevent deaths from the new European diseases.

European diseases

Disease played a vital role in the breakdown of traditional Indigenous societies. The Indigenous peoples had no natural resistance or immunity to European diseases, so when they were exposed to these diseases, many groups were wiped out. In some areas, most, sometimes all, Indigenous children died from a disease.

These new European diseases included tuberculosis, cholera, venereal disease, measles, whooping-cough, influenza and even the common cold. The biggest killer, though, was smallpox.


Smallpox was a highly contagious viral disease unique to humans. About 30 percent of all smallpox cases resulted in death. Smallpox epidemics had killed millions of people in other countries. The Inca population in South America, for example, was reduced by 60 to 90 per cent when smallpox was introduced by European colonists. Refer Image 2

It is difficult to know for sure but it is estimated that within the first two years of British settlement, almost half of the Aboriginal peoples living in the Port Jackson area had died of smallpox. Within three years, the majority of Indigenous people living close to Sydney were killed by smallpox. Only small pockets of Indigenous peoples were left to survive in their own country.

As the Europeans and infected Indigenous peoples moved inland, the diseases moved with them. Smallpox was spread down the Murray River to South Australia and up and down the coast from Sydney. In Tasmania, according to British estimates, smallpox destroyed half of the Indigenous peoples that came into contact with Port Arthur.

Aboriginal response to diseases

Many Indigenous groups believed that the distant magic of enemy tribes was causing the smallpox plague and other diseases. The Euahlayi people of northern New South Wales believed that their enemies had sent the diseases in the winds so that they dropped on the victims. South Australian Aboriginal peoples had a 'smallpox song' that they sang to try to stop the disease. They had learnt this song from groups in the east where the disease had come from.

The only disease that Aboriginal people associated directly with Europeans was syphilis, and other venereal diseases. These diseases, spread by sexual contact, were particularly damaging to the birth rate of the Aboriginal populations. In some Aboriginal groups there were no children born into the group for many years, if at all.

Impact of European disease

The impact of smallpox and other diseases on Indigenous populations was overwhelming. Many of the Aboriginal spiritual doctors and elders died, and many of the plants used for medicine were eaten by horses, sheep or cattle. Indigenous populations were so severely reduced that the social systems and the links between generations were destroyed. Any surviving Indigenous groups could not live as they had before, as many of the family and clan members had died. Refer Image 3

Disease was the major factor in reducing the Aboriginal population but frontier wars and massacres were also responsible for many deaths. This will be discussed in the next chapter.

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Question 1/5

1. What happened to lots of native plants that were used by spiritual doctors to fix injuries?

Eaten by cattle and sheep

Killed by the drought

Dug up by settlers

Destroyed by firestick farming


No thanks. Remind me again later.