SS St Albans

There are 284 digitised Australian newspaper articles on SS St Albans covering the period 1881 and 1931 in the Trove database, accessed 29 June 2014. In 1931 this steamship, which Chinese crew had left two rock engravings on sandstone surface at North Head – one in the Wharf Precinct of the Quarantine Station and the other at Old Man’s Hat – became unseaworthy in 1931 and paid its last visit to Australia when it called at Townsville in August on its way to Japan, where it was going to be scrapped (Morning bulletin, 22 September 1931, p. 14). On 29 August 1931 it is reported in the Tasmanian newspaper Advocate that the Eastern and Asian liner SS St Albans was sold to Japan for £7000 and would be replaced by Nankin. St Albans played a significant role in the trade between Australia and Asia and in fact held a place of cultural significance in the Chinese community in Australia, when its status in society was far from normalised due to the White Australia Policy. A maritime link to China offered by steamships provided a vital connection for the Chinese community to the land, the people and the goods of its ancestors and its families and relatives.

The same Advocate article describes SS St Albans as a “4119-ton, two-deck passenger liner, built at Belfast in 1910, and re-engined in 1930″ (Advocate, 29 August 1931, p. 14). The St Albans engravings, both in Chinese, were made when the ship was quarantined twice in 1917. The second engraving, far less elaborate than the first one and is today found right next to a Japanese engraving of Nikko Maru made in 1971, in fact indicates the second arrival of the ship at North Head in the same year.


1888: the Chinese question and habeas corpus

A perceived threat of a “Chinese invasion” was fervently reported in Australia’s colonial newspapers in May 1888. To put it in context, the late 1880s were a time when most of the Chinese men who made a very significant presence in the gold fields during the 1850s had already gone back to their home country with whatever gold they had found. However, it was also a period of great anxiety for the working class because of the recession that lasted from 1886 to 1888. And not so long ago between 1881 and 1882, Australia faced a serious public health threat from its first smallpox epidemic in Sydney since April 1789, that probably had one of its origins among the 106 Chinese labourers (“coolies”) who arrived in Sydney from Hong Kong aboard SS Brisbane at 2.50 am on 29 April 1881. There was one case of smallpox and the steamship was quarantined at North Head. The Brisbane crew and passengers were given a health clearance in May and were allowed to enter Sydney. SS Brisbane was no stranger to being quarantined at North Head, having previously gone through this process for 34 days from 12 December 1876 due to smallpox on board (Foley, 2004, p. 162), no doubt at great cost to the iron steamship’s company, Eastern and Australian Mail Steam Co Ltd – ranging between A$14,300 and A$36,000 per day, according to one recent scholarly estimation (Foley, 2004, p. 163). Adding to the woes of the Brisbane was that it was wrecked at Fish Reef off Darwin in October 1881 while carrying Chinese cargo and labourers; there was fortunately no loss of life.

Either because of Brisbane or other sources, smallpox was spreading to the residents of Sydney, with the first possible case, identified on 25 May 1881, being the infant daughter of an Australian Chinese merchant living in Lower George Street at the Rocks. Dr Haynes Gibbes Alleyne (1815-1882), Health Officer of Port Jackson (appointed July 1852) who had the Quarantine Station under his control (Refshauge, 1969), instructed a government medical officer, Dr Foucart, to examine the little girl daily. However, due to uncertainty in Dr Foucart’s diagnosis, Dr Alleyne did not place her and her family in quarantine (Allen, 2008).


Allen, Raelene. Smallpox epidemic 1881. Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,, accessed online 12 June 2014.

Finnane, Mark. “Habeas corpus Mongols” – Chinese litigants and the politics of immigration in 1888. Australian historical studies, 45(2), 2014, pp. 165-183, DOI: 10.1080/1031461X.2014.911759, accessed online 11 June 2014.

Foley, Jean D. Maritime quarantine versus commerce: the role of the health officer of Port Jackson in the nineteenth century. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 90(20), 2004, pp. 152-174.

Refshuage, Richard. Alleyne, Haynes Gibbes (1815-1882). Australian dictionary of biography,, accessed online 12 June 2014.

Steinberg, David. The historic shipwreck SS Brisbane (1874-1881): a plan of management. 2005: Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory.

Warren, Chris. Was Sydney’s smallpox outbreak of 1789 an act of biological warfare against Aboriginal tribes? Ockham’s razor, Australian Broadcast Corporation, 17 April 2014.

“Asiatic cholera”

The frightening European experience of the so-called “Asiatic cholera” in the early 20th century left a scarred imagination on the European mind: the true nature of Asia as a source of disease, death and decay, the very negation of a forward-looking Western civilisation which should be unstoppable in its triumphalist march to world domination. Epidemics originating in Asia were hindrances to the advancement of Western interests: the chaos of communicable diseases was the antithesis to the new rational order of science and technology combined with the insatiable expansionism of imperialist economics.

Australia, colonised by the British as a new frontier of wealth and prosperity, was constantly beset with a general Angst about its geographical proximity to Asia, which was perceived to give the thriving British culture and population in this young nation nothing but the deeply unsettling troubles of dangerous communicable diseases. While economic astuteness made enterprising Australians desirous of the high quality goods of Asia that could enrich their country, White Australia Policy ensured that none of those disease-carrying natives of Asia, commonly referred to as “Asiatics”, would ever set foot on Australian soil and start a new life here.

Even with the Immigration Restriction Act still in full force, the reality of the Great Depression, which began in the United States on 29 October 1929 followed rapidly by a worldwide negative impact, made Australia realise that international trade in the “Asiatic and Pacific” region could only be beneficial to its long-term survival. However, what was first and foremost on the mind of the medical establishment when a direct flight service was established between Darwin and Singapore in February 1933 was the possible ease with which dreaded diseases such as cholera, plague and smallpox, all “Asiatic” in origin (Northern Star, 27 February 1933, p. 4), could be imported into the young white nation, repeating the earlier waves of ravages done to the public health of the white Volk. The national memory of a deadly pandemic was still fresh in the years leading up to the Great Depression, when between 1918 and 1919 the Spanish influenza (pneumonic influenza) killed around 10,000 in Australia, when this loyal British ally had already lost over 60,000 lives out of a population of less than five million in World War I, which began in August 1914 and only ended in November 1918.

However, rather than advocating Australia’s withdrawal from this newly established link between northern Australia and Southeast Asia, the first Commonwealth Director-General of Health, Dr John Cumpston (1880-1954), travelled to Singapore in early March 1933 to organise quarantine arrangements (Northern Star, 27 February 1933, p. 4.) Given the real threat of Asian-imported epidemics, Dr Cumpston’s efforts signalled the beginning of the workings of air quarantine, which would eventually displace maritime quarantine as a public health priority when civilian air travels became common and widespread since the 1950s.

Racial justice and national interests

Given that the history of Australia began with the British occupation of Aboriginal land, under the pretext that prior to Captain Cook’s discovery of the continent in 1788 the land belonged to no one, the question of race is inextricably bound up with the essence of Australian history itself. This is because, fundamentally speaking, the colonies of Australia and their subsequent federation into a nation all took place under the assumption that the Aboriginal people were not there in the process: phenomenologically speaking, they were denied Dasein. This horrific nullification of an entire indigenous Volk in the establishment of a nation implies that Australia was born from the spoils of an imperialist conquest by the British Empire.

Asiatics’ Quarters: qualitative differentiation in detention

The construction of the Asiatics’ Quarters at the North Head Quarantine Station began in 1902. An equivalent set-up was also constructed at the Point Nepean Quarantine Station on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. The model of the Asiatics’ Quarters was significant in that it was an early institutionalised example of immigration detention in Australian history. Although the buildings in the Asiatics’ Quarters served the overall quarantine purposes at both North Head and Point Nepean, and on that level, one can argue that in terms of their function they were no different from other buildings for internees at Australian quarantine stations. However, the Asiatics’ Quarters served another purpose, which was very important for the government at the time: they acted as the site of segregation of non-European internees from European internees of the three passenger classes. In that particular aspect the Asiatics’ Quarters were an architectural as well as institutional expression of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, one of the first legislations passed in the new Federal Parliament. As a new nation formed by the federation of the six former self-governing colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, Australia firmly believed – and in good faith – that it was in its national interests to keep itself British and white and non-Europeans such as Chinese and Pacific Islanders, who had already made themselves quite noticeable in the former colonies through their significant presence in numbers as well as in economic activity, should be resolutely excluded from settlement.

Strategic analysis: Australia and the Chinese, past and present; and quarantine

In strategic analysis, peace and war, prosperity and decline, health and disease are always considered together as ever present possibilities, even if they are by definition complete opposites; the dialectical interplay between these opposites in politics, economics and public health (quarantine) are conceptually co-temporal and ontologically equiprimordial.

A strategic view in the national interests of Australia, then, does not answer the question whether Chinese immigration to Australia is in essence good or bad. Instead, the more meaningful question to pose is whether the implications of Chinese immigration are contingent upon China’s role and conduct relating to its power in the Asia-Pacific region, where Australia has become increasingly self-conscious of its inescapable geo-political place since the abolition of the White Australia Policy after World War II. For a Western society like Australia, this sense of place is potentially an uneasy one.

Strategically speaking, quarantine, to take one example, is morally neutral. It does not talk about good or evil; its main concern is the effectiveness in the identification, isolation and hopefully cure of dangerously diseased bodies, which, if left uncontrolled, can transform civilisation into death. The success of a quarantine is measured by the victory of a war against the holding sway and the expansion of untimely deaths by diseases in society. During an epidemic or a pandemic, quarantine acts as the fine line between life and death, or between society and burial sites (cemeteries as well as mass graves). When it works, quarantine is what stops fear and despair from exiling hope from the world of the living. When it does not, society falls into decline, accompanied by a chaos tinged with a mortal’s deep sense of horror.

Learning from old Chinese graves in Australia

The precise indication of the origin of the deceased in grave inscriptions in the early Chinese community in Australia found no equivalent in the case of the old gravestones of the dominant group of European settlers. The main reason for this was that traditional Chinese settlers commonly had the culturally influenced yearning to have their remains returned to the place of their birth after death. However, sometimes due to the individual circumstances of the deceased, this was not always possible. Chinese folk beliefs are earth-based – “pagan”, so to speak -, hence the location of earth, namely Chinese or Australian, is significant. In essence and traditionally speaking, the Chinese deceased cannot be at home unless his or her remains find their final resting place in the soil of their birthplace. For the Chinese, to have one’s corpse buried permanently in Australia would create the postmortem condition of a wandering, restless spirit. European Christian beliefs, in contrast, are otherworldly based – the soul of the deceased returns to God, no matter where one dies, and provided one is not condemned to hell through unforgiven “mortal sins” committed while on earth.