“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.


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