How the kidnapping of a First Nations man on New Years Eve in 1788 could lead to a smallpox epidemic

First Nations Peoples, please note that this article talks about times of racial discrimination in history, including the plight and death of First Nations people.

Research continues to show that the burden of disease among First Nations people is more than double that of non-Indigenous Australians. This despite the general awareness of the health inequalities experienced by First Nations peoples and the efforts of successive governments to “close the gap”.

Strengthening our awareness of history can help us understand how historical trauma contributes to the poor health of First Nations people today.

This New Years Eve, Sydney once again hosted an amazing party with a fantastic show of light and color. However, many Australians were probably unaware that New Years Eve also marks the anniversary of the first capture by British invaders of a First Nations person in Australia in the 1700s.

This kidnapping preceded a smallpox epidemic that killed more than 50% of the Aborigines in the Sydney Basin, as well as many further inland.

In our new research published in the international journal History of Psychiatry, we describe evidence supporting the theory that smallpox was deliberately triggered by British invaders.

We also introduce a new theory that the zero point of the smallpox epidemic of 1789 began with the abduction of the Aborigines Arabanoo on New Years Eve in 1788.

Read more: Friday trial: it’s time for a new museum dedicated to the fighters of the border wars

Deception leading to kidnapping and death

When the British invaded in early 1788, they struggled to survive. While establishing their colony, British convicts stole fishing nets and canoes from local Aborigines in the Eora Nation, sparking minor altercations.

The settlers worried about future feuds with the Indigenous peoples when their early expeditions indicated a much higher number of Indigenous people inhabiting the Sydney Basin than they had anticipated.

As 1788 drew to a close, British food supplies were dwindling, and although land clearing began in Parramatta in November, settlers were unsure whether they would be able to cultivate crops. By December, it had been several months since no native had approached the settler camp, and Governor Arthur Phillip feared they would attack his fledgling colony.

So, on New Year’s Eve, he decides to go on the offensive, sending a group of soldiers to take Aboriginal prisoners in order to obtain information.

Led by Lieutenants Henry Ball and George Johnston, a squadron of British Marines rowed to Manly Beach, where they began distributing gifts to a group of Natives gathered on the shore. Using the gifts as a distraction, the soldiers captured a young aboriginal named Arabanoo.

Captain Arthur Phillip’s Fountain, Sydney.

When word of Arabanoo’s deceptive kidnapping spread, animosity towards the British increased. Then, a few weeks after receiving the gifts in Manly, fear erupted when several Aboriginal people fell ill with smallpox.

Referred to by the Eora as “galgalla”, smallpox was well known to the British, who used a process called variolation for immunization. Treatment involved either snorting scabs of smallpox in the nose or inserting scabs under a small cut in a person’s skin in order to contract a mild form of the disease and trigger the immune system.

There was no record of anyone suffering from smallpox during the voyage of the First Fleet. As a precaution, however, British Surgeons of the First Fleet carried jars of smallpox flakes in their medical kits.

When settlers learned that smallpox had broken out among the Eora, Judge Advocate David Collins took a surgeon and Arabanoo to inspect the effects of the disease around Port Jackson. Collins described Arabanoo’s reaction as an expression of agony that couldn’t be forgotten.

The expedition anxiously searched for survivors, but found nothing but rotting corpses of people with smallpox all around the port. As settlers ventured north and south of Manly over the next several months, they continued to find corpses.

It is still unclear whether the British deliberately infected the First Nations people they encountered. Historians have put forward a series of theories about the causes of the epidemic.

After exposure to the smallpox virus, it takes one to two weeks for symptoms to appear. Our theory is that the epidemic had spread for several weeks before the British realized it, and it may have come from the gifts given out during the Arabanoo kidnapping some 12 to 13 weeks earlier.

This theory is supported by the indigenous oral history of the Manly area. According to other research, several British Marines had also fought battles in North America before, where they might have heard stories of the spread of smallpox as a strategy against the First Nations people there.

Read more: Oral testimony of an indigenous massacre now supported by scientific evidence

Arabanoo’s death

In April, a hut near the British hospital tent was used to accommodate two indigenous men and two children with smallpox. The men died, but thanks to Arabanoo’s care, a young girl named Abaroo (also known as Boorong) and a little boy named Nanbaree were able to recover. Unfortunately, while treating them, Arabanoo himself contracted smallpox and subsequently died on May 18.

It is important for us to remember that the first interactions of First Nations with British healthcare did not take place in response to injury, accident or natural disaster. Instead, it happened because of deception, kidnapping and disease in the context of the invasion by the British.

The relationship of First Nations peoples with white health care has been haunted by this situation and the bad practices that have continued since.

Remembering Arabanoo every New Years Eve can help Australians better understand our nation’s traumatic history and the intergenerational effects of colonization.

Improving our understanding of history also has the potential to create better communication with First Nations people. It makes us more ready to listen when Indigenous people tell us what they need to close the health care gap, and when they tell us how we can build better relationships through messages such as the Declaration. Uluru from the heart.