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, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/smallpox_epidemic_1881, 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, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/alleyne-hayne-gibbes-2879/text4115, 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.