The pessimism of incommensurability

Despite the illusion of race as demonstrated by the science of genetics, culture as a way of life endures as a powerful marker of identity, which is often confused with the superficial appearance of race. Given that the North Head Quarantine Station operated for 72 years under the aegis of the White Australia Policy, affecting the lives of three generations of people, the question of race, or rather the demarcation and discrimination that the past Australian approach and mentality demanded on the basis of it, was engraved deeply in personal as well as collective memories of the site.

Even before Australia’s racially restrictive immigration act in the past came into effect in 1901, the lack of scientific understanding of communicable diseases, which were frightfully fatal in the cases of smallpox and bubonic plague, were sourced to the racial and the cultural other such as the Chinese, simply because China, the land of one of the oldest civilisations on earth, itself struggled with the challenges and the horrors of these two ancient diseases in the longevity of its history. Syllogistically, the same argument could have been applied to the motherland of the British Empire, the English Isles, which almost disappeared under the onslaughts of the plague during the 14th century, and which with its conquerors and settlers brought the scourge of smallpox upon indigenous Australians who perished in demographically disastrous numbers, thus allowing further inroads of British colonialism into the Australian terrain. But prejudice has an inbuilt immunity to logic for it to be what it is – in all its insidious glory under the protective cover of advancing colonialism. Unscientific prejudice in Australia’s past public health management of deadly communicable diseases had the real power, despite its nonsensical discourse, to segregate, to stigmatise, to humiliate, to scapegoat. In our current age when mental health is only just beginning to receive a respectful socio-cultural understanding, the legacy of psychological traumas carried by the Chinese and other non-European survivors of smallpox or bubonic plague from North Head and other Australian quarantine stations can only be conceived as thoroughly weighty in the silence of their eventual passing in time and in the absence of their autobiographies and biographies.


Thoughts on the former Stables

There is a published photo of the former Stables of the North Head Quarantine Station in the two-page spread of the 3 February 1900 issue of Australian town and country journal. Called the Front line of defence, it portrays Australia’s deep anxiety about the arising of the bubonic plague in Sydney, an age-old disease that once threatened to destroy European civilisation during the 14th century. In England, for example, over a third of the population died of the plague between ?

In Jean Duncan Foley’s In quarantine, the only authoritative book on the North Head Quarantine Station to have come out so far, it is mentioned on page ? that experiments on vaccines against the plague were carried out at the former Stables, with horses as the subjects. It is important to remember that discovery of vaccine against any deadly infectious disease of the time, such as bubonic plague and smallpox, was a question of national importance that triggered competition among the medical scientists of different countries. On top of the reality of nationalism in vaccine development – regardless of the fact it is for the common good of humanity -, it is not difficult to imagine that biosecurity played a great role in these experiments.