James Boyce
Colonisation and disease

As a remarkable year nears its end, it seems a once-in-a-century opportunity to reflect on the most traumatic event in modern Australian history has been squandered.

In 2020, Australians have become more conversant with the ravages of the Spanish flu and the mediaeval plague. But not even Covid-19 could induce public reflection on the pathogens that killed so many Indigenous Australians after the colonisation of this land. The fact that this year was also the 250th anniversary of the catalyst for catastrophe – the expedition of Captain Cook – makes the absence even more remarkable. What explains it? Surely the country has moved on from what W. E. H. Stanner termed “the great Australian silence”? One obvious answer is that conservative politicians viciously condemned the first public health official to raise the subject.

During the initial wave of Covid-19, Scott Morrison, along with several senior colleagues and the usual cadre of News Corp commentators, launched a concerted personal attack on Dr Annaliese van Diemen, a Victorian deputy chief health officer. Her sin? A tweet that acknowledged the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing on Australian shores. “Sudden arrival of an invader from another land, decimating populations, creating terror,” she wrote. “Forces the population to make enormous sacrifices & completely change how they live in order to survive. COVID19 or Cook 1770?”

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton solemnly declared van Diemen was “unfit” for her job in the public service, saying “she should go”. Victoria’s opposition leader, Michael O’Brien, dismissed her reflection as “woke political commentary”. Former Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy labelled van Diemen “a complete fruitcake”, her tweet proof that Victoria was being governed by “hard left nutters”. Liberal Health spokesperson Georgie Crozier reiterated calls for van Diemen’s resignation for making “ideological public commentary”. Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz chimed in with the suggestion van Diemen’s contribution was “hysterical” and all about enhancing “wokeness”. Brighton MP James Newbury lodged a formal complaint on the basis that “Victorians shouldn’t be paying for public servants to also be extreme left-wing activists”. In reality, van Diemen’s tweet was actually made on a day off, unlike those of her outraged critics.

The prime minister soon weighed in to the chorus of outrage, telling 2GB’s Alan Jones he found her comments “very disappointing”. “She clearly wouldn’t get the job as chief historian,” Morrison said. His advice to the nation: “People should stick to their day jobs.”

The vilification of a senior public health doctor over a fairly benign tweet was a remarkable political intervention at the height of a pandemic – a time when the prime minister so often used his exclusive focus on “lives and livelihoods” to avoid answering questions on many pressing issues. Prime ministerial intervention did, however, achieve its presumed purpose: proving Morrison’s “history warrior” credentials by shutting down any public reflection on the principal cause of suffering associated with the British conquest of Australia.

The only serious point made by van Diemen’s critics was that settlement didn’t begin with Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay in 1770. But whether from ignorance or deceit, the prime minister and his allies seemed uninterested in the fact that the events of 250 years ago set the scene for the British colonisation in 1788 and the devastation that followed.

Could Morrison really believe Cook’s expedition to the South Seas was only an Enlightenment-infused showcase of British navigation and science, despite the fact the captain planted the Union Jack and formally claimed the eastern half of the continent in the name of his king, proclaiming it to be “New South Wales”? If Cook’s expedition had nothing to do with the invasion to come, how does the prime minister explain generations of politicians erecting giant flagpoles and placing other memorabilia where the crew of the Endeavour first came ashore, and then re-enacting the landing in 1970 under the watchful eye of the Queen? If 1770 bore no relation to subsequent events, why was the member for Cook prepared to allocate almost $50 million to the 250th anniversary commemorations, including a large infrastructure spend around the landing site itself? Is Scott Morrison now pretending that, after all the fuss, his shire is not the “birthplace of the nation”?

In both historical reality and national mythology, Cook’s expedition set in motion the British conquest of Australia. And it is indisputable that as part of this process, as Paul Keating famously said in Redfern Park in 1992, “we brought the disease”. Indeed, the British officers who arrived in 1788 were aware of this fact. They documented the despair as most of the Indigenous population of the densely populated Sydney Harbour region succumbed to a smallpox epidemic in 1789.

Debate rages still about how the smallpox outbreak occurred, given the invaders themselves were immune. Had it spread from northern Australia to coincidentally reach Port Jackson just after the British arrived? Was it accidentally introduced? Or might it have been deliberately spread to reduce what some newcomers experienced as a frighteningly high population of Aboriginal people?

As bad as this early smallpox epidemic was, the relatively slow pace of colonisation before 1820 allowed Indigenous survivors to partially rebuild lives and livelihoods. The Cumberland Plain, the focus of early colonisation in mainland Australia, saw a continuing strong presence of Aboriginal people despite the devastation wrought by disease, dispossession and violence. As Grace Karskens has documented, for more than three decades Sydney was almost as much an Aboriginal town as a white one.

This process of adaptation and resistance changed dramatically between 1825 and 1850 – when the Aboriginal population of densely populated south-eastern Australia was almost wiped out by disease. The decimation was, according to Inga Clendinnen, a scholar of the catastrophic Spanish colonisation of the Americas, faster than any region she had studied except the Caribbean. And it was directly caused by government policy – the deadly combination of unprecedented expansionism and a near complete lack of consideration for the consequences.

It is important to understand that there was nothing normal about the British land rush on the heavily populated grasslands of eastern Australia after 1835; in scale and speed, it was without precedent in imperial history. The British and colonial governments’ decision to effectively abolish all internal limits on where settlers could place sheep and shepherds was a radical reversal of previous policy and practice.

In this fanatical “first come, best served” land grab, Indigenous people were moved on, harried or shot until survivors congregated in any haven they could find – sympathetic stations, marginal country and the fringes and wastelands of the comparatively safe towns. It was in these makeshift refugee camps – devoid of sanitation, clean water and adequate food and shelter – that disease ran rampant.

Nowhere did more people die more quickly than in the territory now known as Victoria. Within 15 years of British settlement in 1835 about 85 per cent of the Indigenous population of Port Phillip was dead, mainly from disease. As the chief protector of Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, lamented in April 1839, “What are the evils accruing to the Aborigines by occupancy of their lands by the whites? Disease of fatal character, hunger and distress, murder and rapine.”

An Indigenous vulnerability to newly arrived European diseases is often presented as qualifying official culpability for the suffering associated with the conquest of Australia. So often in the so-called history wars, politicians and public commentators have pointed out that far more Aboriginal people died from disease than violence. But the assumption that disease spreads independently of human agency and public policy is wrong. This was no truer of 19th-century epidemics than it is of Covid-19. The strongest argument that genocide was pursued in colonial Australia is not that governments desired the death of every Aboriginal person. Rather it was that policymakers knew the disastrous impacts on Indigenous people of their radical new land policy and did almost nothing to moderate them.

The destruction wrought by introduced disease is not explained by epidemiology alone. Most Aboriginal people died after they were dispossessed and were concentrated together in conditions more akin to an urban slum than a traditional camp. The link between disease and conquest was well understood at the time, and those who desperately called for better provision for the Indigenous population – land reserves, shelter, decent food supplies, blankets, medical support and civil protection – explicitly did so on the basis that without this assistance most people would soon be dead.

Paul Keating did not go far enough at Redfern Park. The point is not only that “we brought the disease”; the reality is that Europeans created the conditions in which disease flourished and did almost nothing to ameliorate the horror. This is a truth our political leaders should be able to face.

As this nation, still healing from its foundational epidemiological trauma, weathers the awful impact of Covid-19, we have an opportunity to reflect on the courage and strength of Indigenous people who rebuilt lives and livelihoods from unimaginable devastation. We should not forgo this because a historically ignorant and ideologically driven corps of powerful culture warriors personally attack people such as Dr van Diemen – those who dare to lament the well-documented consequences of the colonisation of the continent.

It is every Australian’s right to consider the tragedy that occurred in our country without being bullied into silence. Covid-19 has shown that healing from a collective trauma requires governments that can acknowledge reality. If the prime minister and his historically ignorant colleagues are not able to do this, they should at least shut up so a compassionate conversation can begin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 21, 2020 as "The sick truth".

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James Boyce is the author of the multi-award-winning book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia.

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