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The use of biological warfare in the conquest of Australia

The Dust of the Mindye – The Use of Biological Warfare in the Conquest of Australia

Jim Poulter


ISBN: 9780949196316

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Also available at Royal Historical Society of Victoria bookshop, 239 A'Beckett St, Melbourne.


Review by Anthony Amis

This book investigates the role of smallpox in decimating Aboriginal populations throughout Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The book suggests that the disease was deliberately released by two military officers who came to Australia with the First Fleet ‒ Captain Robert Ross and Captain James Campbell. Both had been familiar with the killing of Native Americans with smallpox when they were stationed on that continent, prior to coming to Australia.

According to Poulter, smallpox (variolous matter) stored in jars was acquired by the First Fleet in Cape Town in 1788 and was "released" in 1789. If correct, then Ross and Campbell's names should go down in infamy as the worst mass murderers this continent has ever seen.

A forward to the book is written by Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson. Poulter notes that smallpox was known to the Wurundjeri as "Mindye", a serpent like creature that spat poison. The dust containing the poison was known as "Manola Mindye". Poulter writes that the initial smallpox plague in 1789 reduced Australia's Aboriginal population by 90% (a staggering 2.5 million people), with the disease particularly lethal to people over 60 years of age and children under the age of six. Poulter estimates that the second plague of 1828 killed another 200,000 people.

The impacts of the disease wrought horror, pain, trauma and suffering to the Aboriginal population. The disease would have also caused mass social upheaval, including loss of transmission of knowledge and lore, changes to marriage arrangements, abandonment of villages and settlement sites (meaning that land stewardship responsibility fell on fewer and fewer people) and increased inter-tribal conflicts.

The book discusses the unique nature of Aboriginal society unified by common beliefs in the purpose of human life. Common to all Aboriginal groups was "a universal belief in the Dreamtime of Creation ... a common social structure and system of family relationships … all knowledge was integrated through the totem system". Poulter also devotes a chapter on coming to terms with an understanding of the Aboriginal Skin Group System based on Spirit, Flesh and Skin Class relationships.

With the loss of permanent settlements, the first colonists misinterpreted this as meaning that Aboriginal people were nomadic, primitive and uncivilised. By the founding of Melbourne in 1835 therefore, traditional Aboriginal society was functioning in a highly modified form to what existed 50 years earlier. This in turn would have fed into simplistic colonial misinterpretations of Aboriginal society. "There has been precious little effort to see what was observed as evidence of breakdown in the very fabric of Aboriginal society, due to the effects of massive depopulation by smallpox," Poulter writes. A very interesting and thought-provoking book.

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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