Quarantine as part of grand strategy

The establishment of quarantine stations in 19th century Australia has to be viewed not only in terms of public health measures, but as part of the grand strategy of the British Empire, in its maritime supremacy of the time, to protect its economic and territorial interests. Immigrants were sent from England to Australia to conquer and to cultivate its frontier lands, which, in their relegation to the disempowered status of terra nullis, completely obliterated the land rights of Indigenous Australians. A great power like the British Empire expanded its colonial sphere of influence through emigration of entrepreneurs and workers from the British stock to a great mass of land like Australia, perceived to be “uninhabited” by the British elite. (This perception was shared by Chinese and Dutch maritime adventurers who visited Australia before the British.) Quarantine was not simply a matter of public health, but also an extension and an expression of political power. Quarantine regulations and stations not only served to protect Australia from deadly infectious diseases, but aided and abetted the British Empire in ensuring that its imago was replicated and firmly established in this far-flung colony in the southern hemisphere: the antipodes to Europe and its advanced civilisation, which at the time was galvanised through the Industrial Revolution that actually began in England. Viewed strategically, therefore, quarantine was both projection and protection of power; the Industrial Revolution, too, contributed greatly to the authority and the technology of Australian quarantine stations. At the North Head Quarantine Station, the autoclaves, the power house and the funicular railway readily come to mind.


Grey, Jeffrey. A military history of Australia. (3rd edition) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.


Wu Lien-teh

Dr Wu Lien-teh, a Penang-born Cambridge medical alumnus of Chinese ethnicity who rose to prominence through his innovative public health efforts, based in Harbin, northern China, against a pandemic of pneumonic plague in Manchuria and Mongolia between December 1910 and March 1911, was the Director of National Quarantine Service in China between the years 1931 and 1937. In that plague outbreak, which originated among marmot hunters in Eastern Siberia, there were 60,000 deaths with no survivals, and public buildings including temples were used as temporary quarantine stations (Wu, 2007, p. 68).

Dr Wu’s delivery of the Fifth George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology in Canberra on 2 September 1935 was mentioned in a Broken Hill newspaper (Barrier miner, 4 September 1935, p. 3), when he defended the quality of Chinese residents in Australia as superior to the commonly held Australian perception of them as being no better than vegetable growers and laundry operators and workers. Dr Wu’s lecture is published in its entirety in the Australian National University journal East Asian history in December 2007 (Wu, 2007, pp. 61-77).

At the time of Dr Wu’s Morrison Lecture, he noted that there were only 20,000 Chinese residing in Australia; their numbers had been steadily declining since 1881, when there were 38,533 Chinese, of whom only 259 were women (Wu, 2007, p. 75). The speaker did not criticise directly the White Australia Policy. Instead he appeared to express greater pride in the professional and academic achievements of Australian-born Chinese men and women than in the sudden fortunes of the Chinese gold diggers (Wu, 2007, p. 75).

Due to the Sino-Japanese War, Dr Wu returned to Penang in 1937 and practised benevolent medicine there until his death at the age of 81 on 21 January 1960.

1906-1907: Imperial Chinese Commissioner’s visit to Australia and its positive reception

White Australia Policy, which began in 1901 through the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, did not cause Australia to cease diplomatic and trade relations with China, which until October 1911 had its last imperial dynasty, that of Qing. Most notable was the warmly received visit of Commissioner Hwang Hon Cheng (family name in Cantonese pronunciation is Wong) to all States in Australia except Western Australia between late October 1906 and January 1907. As reported in a Tasmanian newspaper, Commissioner Hwang’s visit was given a grand welcome by the Chinese community, and it had the strategic plan of establishing the office of Qing consul-general in Melbourne, whose expenses would be substantially covered by the local Chinese residents (The Mercury, 28 May 1907, p. 8). In the same news article it was also mentioned that apart from mainland Australia, Commissioner Hwang also visited Tasmania, New Zealand and the Dutch East Indies.

In other words, the Immigration Restriction Act was not intended as a political offensive against China, but was instituted as a means of socio-economic control of Australian society. It was basically a question of sovereignty, given the real impact of a rapid, swelling and uncontrolled demographic shift during the Gold Rush years of mid- to late 19th century. However, the success of Commissioner Hwang’s visit caused some Australian politicians to make public statements that the Immigration Restriction Act should be revised if Australia were to benefit from trade relations with China.

Racial restrictions in immigration to Australia were polarised between the needs of social hegemony and those of economic expediency, both of which were considered by politicians and businessmen to be essential to the nation building of the young Federation. Among ordinary Australians, however, the main concern was to maintain and to develop an European society that would necessarily regard Asian cultures from the populous north as alien and incompatible. Such cultural concern is still very much alive today in postwar Australia transformed by multiculturalism, given that Australia as a Western democracy would cease to exist if non-European values were ever to gain ascendancy over traditional European norms and institutions through a radical demographic displacement of white Australians. If Australia were to one day become an Asian majority nation, whether it would still be able to continue with the Westminster system in its true spirit would be very doubtful indeed.


In January 1930 Li Ming Yen was appointed Consul-General by China’s Foreign Minister Wang. The Consulate-General would be based in Melbourne (Chronicle, 23 January 1930, p. 46).


Because of the institutionalised racism against non-Europeans in Australian quarantine policy in the past, Asian heritage and history are relegated to the region of contested ground at the site of the former North Head Quarantine Station. In its current incarnation as Q Station since April 2008, which is a hotel entity with a museum inside the former Luggage Store (A15-17) at the old wharf on Spring Cove, there is a complete absence of memorialisation of past non-European presence on site. This state of affairs is in total contrast to the active and respectful memorialisation of Chinese heritage and history at the former Angel Island Immigration Station, which once served as a major quarantine station to protect the San Francisco community from dangerous infectious diseases. However, as any critical analysis of its history will show, Angel Island was also used as an institutional tool to assert the white supremacy of American society between 1910 and 1940.

At North Head, not to name white supremacy for what it is through memorialisation of past racist injustice is to allow its spectre to linger in the continued life of the site, even if the Quarantine Station now only exists as an aesthetic reduction of its former self as a public health institution of great national significance.

Quarantine and Geist

In its essence, public health operates according to the moral conviction and the ethical principle that the well-being of a community is more important than the needs, desires and comfort of an individual. In ontological terms, the interests of Mitdasein prevail over Dasein as an individuated being. Indeed for Dasein to exist, Mitdasein has to be first protected from devastating agents of death such as smallpox and bubonic plague. There are no individuals without community; and there are no communities without humanity. Hence quarantine is about preservation of humanity; its directions and operations have direct impact on the destiny of human civilisation. Reduced to the contingency of the infected body, Dasein‘s Geist faces a severe threat in the form of incapacitation through delirious suffering, with death already lurking around the corner to snuff out the weakened flame of life of the seriously sick without warning. With the darkening of the lumen naturale of the human Geist in a deadly illness such as smallpox, philosophy capitulates. If the afterlife is true, Geist, whether interpreted as mind or spirit, perhaps cannot wait for its final release from the fatally diseased body into an unknown freedom. There is a reason why a lofty philosophical word in the German language such as Geist can also mean “ghost”, which denotes conscious existence after the physical body.