The whaling and sealing vessels travelling the coast during the early 1800s may have transmitted new diseases to the Aboriginal population of the South Coast. The smallpox epidemic that devastated the Sydney coastal peoples in 1789 is likely to have had an impact further down the coast. Harper, on his visit to Bateman’s Bay in 1826, before the first European settlement in the area, recorded that the people he saw there had, “… no cutaneous sores upon them”.47 However, even if the Eurobodalla people had managed to avoid the impact of the earlier smallpox epidemics the epidemic of 1829-31, which affected areas throughout the colony, is almost certain to have had some impact.
In the journal that the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Port Phillip District, G.A. Robinson, kept during his visit to the Eden-Monaro region in 1844, he referred to the impact of influenza on the area, “Four years ago large numbers of the coast and Maneroo blacks died of influenza”.48 Although Robinson did not travel into the Eurobodalla area if influenza was active in the areas to the south then it was certainly also present in this region.
In his report on the ‘Condition of the Aborigines’ for the year 1845 the Commissioner for Crown Lands for the district, Commissioner Lambie, stated:
No material change has taken place in the condition of the Natives during the last year. Some Months ago a few of the Adult Males were attacked with Fever, and, although all received Medical treatment from one or other of the Surgeons who are resident Stock owners, those cases terminated fatally.
Also in 1845 a Select Committee was established to inquire into the ‘condition of the Aborigines and the best means of promoting their welfare’50. This committee sent out a circular letter to magistrates, Crown Land Commissioners and ‘other Gentleman’ with a list of 18 questions regarding the Aboriginal people in their areas. For the area referred to as Broulee (including the areas around Moruya and Bateman’s Bay) Francis Flanagan stated in relation to population and the spread of disease that:
The number and description of the aborigines in this district is as follows: – About two hundred and fifty; one hundred and sixty males, sixty females, and thirty children… [They have] Diminished about fifty per cent… Few children are now reared, and many adults have died lately… [From] Cutaneous and venereal diseases principally… About two years back, a virulent cutaneous disorder was raging amongst them, and a surgeon resident in this neighbourhood provided them with medicines at his own expense, for which the Government have since refused to remunerate him. When ill, they generally apply to the white residents in the district, who doctor them according to their ability.
In his ‘Report on the condition of the Aborigines in the year 1847’ Commissioner Lambie stated that:
The Aborigines are fast decreasing in numbers, and it is needless to say that generally they retain their old wandering and unsettled habits and seem as much as ever disinclined to remain long in any particular place. There have been no collisions with the Whites that I have heard of; but it has been reported to me that five died of Influenza, during the time this disease was so prevalent among the White people a short time ago.
Three years later Commissioner Lambie was even more explicit in his belief that the Aboriginal population of the area was being decimated by disease:
“They are few in number on the Table Land of Maneroo; somewhat more numerous along the seacoast, but everywhere decreasing rapidly… There is every probability of the few Aborigines belonging to this District soon becoming extinct, from the number that die annually of Influenza, and Consumption.”
This belief amongst Europeans that the Aboriginal population of a particular area, or of the country generally, was “rapidly dying out” was a widespread one in the nineteenth century. This belief was closely associated with racial and racist theories and assumptions and continued to be held by Europeans well into the twentieth century despite clear evidence that the Aboriginal population was no longer decreasing, had indeed begun to increase. Nonetheless in certain periods, and the mid nineteenth century was one of them, it would appear that European commentators were reporting on a real and devastating population decrease amongst many Aboriginal peoples as a result of introduced diseases.
Excerpt from Eurobodalla Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Study, South Coast New South Wales, 2005. Story contributed by Martin Ind from Moruya High School.