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The complexity of epidemics



One of easiest ways to wreck a conversation is to reduce a topic to two opposed views or actions between which a choice must be made. One must be for censorship or against it, endorse capitalism or socialism, be liberal or conservative, a friend or enemy of China, and so on.

Main image: Benedictine monks work in a garden at Pluscarden Abbey (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This way of thinking leaves no room for exploration, in which the conversation partners enter with curiosity the world of those from whom they differ, and so are open to qualify their own certainties. It reduces conversation to a debate in which both parties regard their positions as unassailable and use argument as a weapon, not as an exchange. At its worst it argues against opposed positions by vilifying and cancelling their proponents rather than meeting their arguments. Such debates are normally shallow, the attention span is short, and complexity is disrespected.

After exposure to such stuff it is refreshing to find a work that is exploratory and invites its readers into a world more complex than they had imagined. Such a work is a recent book by Peter Dowling, Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples. In his study of epidemics he brings to bear the discoveries of modern medical science on the evidence of observers of the illnesses that ravaged First Nations people from the arrival of the First Fleet to the end of the nineteenth century.

He gives structure to his account by focusing on the impact of each major disease on First Nations peoples in each Australian state. The chapters deal with small pox, measles, syphilis, tuberculosis and influenza, as well as cognate illnesses associated with each disease. He quotes freely from contemporary accounts of these illnesses as he weighs their evidential value in describing the experience of those who suffered from them and of the communities to which they belonged.

Fatal Contact is exemplary in the qualities that distinguish it from oppositional thinking, particularly in its humility. Dowling acknowledges the limitations of the evidence which he analyses and the provisional status of his conclusions. Many of those who described the diseases lacked medical experience, and the vast majority were settlers. How the epidemics affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples beyond the reach of early colonial forces remains uncertain. Throughout the work the author is more concerned to explain than to persuade.

The book is also notable for its sustained attentiveness. Its gestation was long — Dowling became fascinated by the topic as a student in the 1980s and maintained his interest over decades. He has lived long with his material, weighing carefully the reports of explorers, farmers, government officials and institutions carefully, and constantly returning to the human reality that underlies the numbers of sick and dead. He brings out the massive numerical destruction that epidemics brought to First Nations communities, the terrible suffering entailed for the persons who fell ill, and the breakdown of the social customs and cultural norms that sustained the communities.

I came to Fatal Contact as an uninformed but interested reader. It challenged almost in passing many of my received images of Australian settlement, and indeed of European colonial expansion, by introducing layers of complexity both in the human relationships involved and in their broader contexts. As one who had been led first to see the inexorable expansion of white occupation and Indigenous marginalisation throughout the world as the victory of a higher civilisation, and subsequently to see it as the triumph of a more advanced military technology, I came to recognise the effect of imported diseases on a population without immunity. The ravages on Indigenous populations with no immunity against the small pox brought by Hernán Cortés’ band to Mexico and by the First Fleet to New South Wales made effective resistance impossible at a time when the invaders were vulnerable. The same story was told in North America and in the Pacific.


'The larger picture that emerges from Dowling’s study is of the unspeakable horror and destruction that the arrival of European invaders and colonists brought upon people of the First Nations and upon the delicate web of customs and culture focused on respect for the land.'


Although Dowling’s research does not enter the current academic debate about the nature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life, it did enlarge the way in which I had imagined it. It revealed and challenged an image of small homogeneous groups of people isolated from other groups. Dowling’s account brings out the differences between the First Nations, especially the distinctive character of the north where groups of several hundred people built rows of huts, some holding up to thirty people. He also shows how the extensive trade between the First Nations along a system of paths that crossed Australia, and the contact with whalers, fishermen and traders were important factors in spreading disease. Not all epidemics could be traced back to the First Fleet.

Such complexity also characterised the suffering inflicted by the epidemics and the response of the colonists to them. Much was due to the myths both of Indigenous and colonial societies about them. The herding of people from different First Nations cultures on to islands and reservations and the separation of children from families reflected the myth that First Nations people were a dying race that needed to be protected. That myth of the temporary and terminal character of these settlements also offered justification for placing them on poor land and providing inadequate shelter and food. It made the reservations, nominally places of protection, a seeding ground for death through epidemics.

The suffering of people from epidemics, too, was heightened by the received medical myths that controlled the treatment of disease. Tuberculosis spread among settlers and so to First Nations people partly because the climate of Australia was thought to be conducive to its cure. Mercury, which was much used to treat syphilis, was itself lethal and exacerbated the pain caused by the illness. This was true also of other generic forms of treatment based on the four humours, such as bleeding, that at best made little difference and at worst weakened people’s resistance to illness.

The larger picture that emerges from Dowling’s study is of the unspeakable horror and destruction that the arrival of European invaders and colonists brought upon people of the First Nations and upon the delicate web of customs and culture focused on respect for the land. It is a picture also of the mixture of goodness, evil, wisdom, foolishness, presumptuousness, generosity and greed, bravery, ignorance and incuriosity that characterised the human encounter between people of different cultures. Such complex relationships cannot be illuminated by forcing a choice between simplified dichotomies.

The corollary of this story of devastation and confusion is another story of survival and of the resilience involved in carrying on a culture in the face of such huge obstacles. Dowling encapsulates both stories in the medical history of Truganini. It includes the trauma of being raped and seeing her fiancée and mother killed by whalers, almost every illness imported by European invaders, malnutrition in the islands on which Aboriginal Tasmanians were herded, and posthumously the humiliation of having her body dug up and skull exhibited as the remains of the "Last Tasmanian Aboriginal". That she survived all this and that Aboriginal Tasmanians remain in Tasmania is a cause for wonder and for celebration.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Cover of Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples by Peter Dowling

Fatal Contact: How Epidemics Nearly Wiped Out Australia’s First Peoples from Monash University Publishing, ISBN 9781922464460

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, epidemics, review, Fatal Contact, Peter Dowling, Aboriginal, First Nations, colonisation



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Existing comments

A few years ago I found the remains of an aboriginal woman who died of syphilis In NWQ, which was dated to 1770. It raised the question as to whether the illness occurred in indigenous society pre settlement, or whether it may have been introduced by the Macassans pre white settlement.

Nev Hunt | 22 July 2021  

Perturbing; thanks for the book promotion and precis; it's easier than speed reading with my myopia and saved me the purchase. It's unfortunate to include the barbaric treatment of the skull but Westerners have had a long tradition of displayed severed heads with no specific disrespect intended unless on a pike; saints, catacombs, museum exhibits; I'm sure the curators just weren't aware of cultural sensitivities, they probably all agreed it was the right thing; unquestioning, huh? I'd urge a rethink on the desirability of exploring a topic avoiding conflict; it'd be wonderful if everyone agreed on everything and thought similarly... a Nirvana of constructive approval; oh, those relaxed chats; but what if they all agreed to think differently to you, particularly if your beliefs and ideologies are firm? Just for fun, consider the awful "colonists and invaders" who left their origins, and why? They were persuaded, coerced or conscripted to go some place they agreed with someone else who they trusted was right, like the article advocates. I get a kick out of the notion that hoards of Europeans knew they were going to set sail like maurauding Vikings. Without opposed persuasive critique not much is judicious, so what's it gunna be? More naive invaders...

ray | 22 July 2021  

No one ever mentions Chickenpox. It usually is a fairly mild disease in children but is worse and more obvious in people who get it as teenagers or adults (ask the Queen who got it as an adult). In a population of indigenous people who have never had it, it would likely be dangerous and in appearance look a lot like Smallpox. It was almost certainly brought into Australia in the first few years. If anyone has watched the movie "Hawaii" with Julie Andrews (1966) it depicted the Hawaiian Polynesians getting badly affected by Measles.

Bruce Stafford | 23 July 2021  

In the modern day, the Boeing aircraft has perhaps done more harm than good - something we are now paying for with this new upsurge in Covid infections. It was also largely responsible for the rapid spread of HIV - AIDS from the USA to the rest of the world. Now, there is a real pandemic!! Currently there are over 38 million people living with AIDS in this world with over 1.9 million deaths per year. How easily we human's adapt and forget!!! Makes Covid look like a bad dose of the flu - but only because the sensible world has controlled the excursions of the Boeing aircraft. The lockdown we really need in this pandemic is of international air flights - far more important than CEO bonuses.

john frawley | 23 July 2021  

The blurb of the book says "the greatest human tragedy in the long history of Australia", which could be right. It's one of the most important stories in Australian history. It's not known that the First Fleet brought smallpox. The epidemic of 1789 could have come overland from the Macassans, or could have been chickenpox. What the First Fleet brought was material to inoculate against smallpox (and it isn't clear who they planned to administer it to).

James Franklin | 26 July 2021  

COVID-19 is real, but, as John Frawley points out, it's not the Black Death. Necessary precaution only, please and no long raves from the usual suspects, deo voluntas.

Edward Fido | 27 July 2021  

An extraordinary - for the breadth of topics covered - review essay, Andy. You give me much to reflect upon about my behaviour on this site. Mea maxima... And an insightful response as usual from Ray.

Michael Furtado | 27 July 2021  

Not only should we lockdown international air flights to control Covid we should also lock down the airwaves to irresponsible non-expert journos and raving idiots like Alan Jones , Craig Kelly and most of their mates (or co-conspirators) on Sky News.

john frawley | 27 July 2021  

Australia has a History and some of it is bleak indeed. In White History, places like Port Arthur stand out as bleak and utterly inhumane. Black History in this country can look bleak indeed as well. It always strikes me how much of Ascendancy Ireland came across to Australia, with Blacks and Irish Catholics being treated as an underclass, just as the native Irish were in Ireland. The Great Irish Famine of 1857, like the Bengal Famine of the same time, could have been substantially alleviated. There was grain available to relieve both, but, to the dreadful noddies of the British Establishment, 'these were only Irish (or Indians)' and should be left to perish. How appalling! This is Nazi-style thinking. Australian History needs a rethink but it must always be remembered there were very good Governors such as Philip, Macquarie, Gipps and La Trobe, who did try to bring justice and some humanity to the treatment of convicts and Aboriginals. Wokeness must not be allowed to gloss over this.

Edward Fido | 30 July 2021  

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