The Worst Disasters in Australian History

Certain parts of Australia are susceptible to natural disasters such as floods.
Certain parts of Australia are susceptible to natural disasters such as floods.

Throughout its past, Australia has faced a number of disasters which have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. These disasters range from natural to manmade in nature, although they all share something in common - a significant mark on the history of this country. This article takes a closer look at some of the deadliest disasters of Australia.

Select Disasters in Australian History

Smallpox Pandemic

Between the years 1788 to 1979, smallpox was the main cause of of death for Aboriginal Australians. It is estimated that between 157,500-375,000 people died from the disease over the span of two centuries, which represented up to 70% of all Aboriginal populations. Unlike Europeans, indigenous Australians were unfamiliar with the disease and therefore were without any resistence to even have a chance in fighting it off. Because it was the cause of such a high number of deaths, the cross-century smallpox pandemic is often cited as the largest disaster in Australian history.

Flu Pandemic

Between January of 1918 and December of 1920, the world was hit by the deadly H1N1 flu virus. Approximately 3 to 5% of the world’s population was lost during this time. Countries all over the world suffered from this pandemic, including remote islands and frozen landscapes. Australia was no exception. This virus, as with most flu viruses, claimed an excessive number of older, juvenile, and immuno-compromised patients. It is believed that this particular flu strain was so deadly because it caused rapid respiratory failure. In Australia alone, 12,000 people died as a result of the flu, making this the worst disaster to ever occur in this country.

Scarlet Fever Epidemic 

Scarlet Fever is a very contagious illness that disproportionately affects children. Although there is no vaccine, it is treatable through antibiotics, thanks to modern medicine. However, this was not always the case. Scarlet fever used to be a leading cause of death for Australian children, and in fact was responsible for over 8,000 deaths in Australia between the years 1875-1876. 

Massacres of Aboriginal Australians

Following the arrival of Europeans in the 1788, many Aboriginal Australians were victims of violence. It is estimated that at least 6,200 Aboriginal Australians directly died at the hands of the settlers. These deaths occurred not in one central massacre, but in a collection of smaller-scale massacres that are currently being archived and studied. The murders were often conducted at the hands of police and public officials, but there are cases of large-scale violence such as mass poisonings. 

Polio Epidemic

Polio is a disease that has caused death and paralysis around the world for centuries. Epidemics were not reported, however, until the beginning of the 20th century in Europe. From there, the polio epidemic made its way to the United States and finally, to Australia. Although polio existed in Australia at the beginning of the century, the majority of polio-related deaths occurred here between 1946 and 1955. In response to this disease, several therapies and treatments were created and implemented. The most well-known of these was created by Australian Sister Kenny, who is now known as the person who laid the foundation for modern physiotherapy. A reported 1,013 individuals lost their lives due to polio. Today, around 16,000 survivors continue to live in Australia, all with different levels of paralysis.

Battle Of The HMAS Sydney And The Kormoran

On November 19, 1947, the battle between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran resulted in 727 lives lost. This disaster occurred off the coast of Western Australia, around 122 miles from the Dirk Hartog Island.

When the Australian ship asked the Kormoran to identify itself, the German ship responded that it was a merchant ship with cargo. After several minutes of not responding to further questioning, the German ship revealed its true identity and shots were fired from both ships almost simultaneously. The shooting continued for 30 minutes, at the end of which, both ships had caught fire and were badly damaged. All 645 crew members on board the Sydney were killed when the ship sank. Of the 399 on board the Kormoran, 82 were killed and 317 were captured. In total, 727 lives were lost in this disaster.

Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic plague was a bacterial infection that caused headache, fever, vomiting, and swollen lymph nodes that sometimes broke open. It is believed by many researchers to have caused the Black Death during the 14th century. The Bubonic plague is most commonly spread via infected fleas. This connection was made by Australian medical researchers.

The Bubonic plague made its way around the world for a third time beginning in the mid 20th century, killing thousands of people. It was first recorded in Australia in 1900 and is believed to have arrived in Sydney through the shipping trade. This country suffered 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. Although Sydney was the hardest hit, it was not the only city in Australia to lose live to the plague. After Sydney, it was recorded in North Queensland, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Fremantle. By the time the Bubonic plague had been largely eradicated in Australia, approximately 550 people had died.

Heatwave In Victoria

Beginning in December of 1938 and lasting through February of the following year, Victoria, Australia experienced one of its hottest heatwaves on record. These temperatures resulted in the fifth deadliest disaster to occur in this country. In Canberra, for example, daily highs hit 98.3° fahrenheit for 3 days straight and the city received no relief at night, when temperatures only dropped to 70°. More extreme temperatures were recorded in Walgett (111°), Bourke (112°), and Wilcannia (115°). Unable to escape the heat, 438 individuals lost their lives that summer. The heatwave also caused the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria, remembered as one of the worst wildfires in history. These fires claimed an additional 71 people and destroyed several towns as well.

The Deadliest Disasters Of Australia

RankDisasterDeath Toll (est)Year(s)
1Smallpox Pandemic157,500-375,0001788-1979
2Flu Pandemic12,0001918-1920
3Scarlet Fever Epidemic8,0001875-1876
4Aboriginal Massacres6,2001788-1930
5Typhoid Epidemic2,0001891-1910
6Polio Epidemic1,0131946-1955
7Measles Epidemic7481867
9Bubonic Plague5501900-1910
10Victoria Heat Wave4381938-1939
11NSW Heat Wave4101899
12Grippsland Massacre3001840-1850
14AHS Centaur2681943
15Southern Heat Wave2461907-1908

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