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.


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