Quarantine as white power

Enacted by an act of parliament, quarantine required the use of extraordinary powers: the sick and those who had been in contact with the sick were forced to be removed from their familiar surroundings and to stay instead in an utterly unfamiliar, institutionalised setting in a remote place for what could be a rather long period of time. Unlike a vacation, which also involves being away, internees in quarantine were isolated and segregated and placed under constant surveillance: they lost the basic freedom to do as they pleased, as one would in normal life. Quarantine was a situation in which one’s sense of place became seriously disrupted; there was a sudden rupture in the everyday human comportment to spatiality. The temporality of time, too, became abnormal, for the length of one’s quarantine was never a question of one’s choice. The democratic notion of consultation with the “impacted” with the view to seeking their feedback and input was never part of the equation when it came to quarantine. In quarantine, life was suspended – apparently for one’s own good, and for the good of society. And in the case of a dangerous disease such as plague or smallpox, one could die in quarantine, never to go back home and to one’s loved ones.

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Quarantine as a political tool

Quarantine, being an institution to protect public health and to facilitate trade (Customs), was in Australian history subject to the ideological dictates of those in power: the white men. In order to keep Australia “white” after the conquest of Aboriginal Australia by their forebears, these men ruled at the exclusion of humans who were not of their kind by virtue of the otherness in their skin colour, language and customs.

During the May 1881-February 1882 smallpox epidemic in Sydney, the first identified case was the little boy of a Chinese labourer living at the Rocks.

As explained in McCreery and McKenzie (2013), quarantine became the tool of white nationalism in the quarantine of the Chinese passengers from SS Ocean and SS Brisbane, when none of them actually had smallpox or had been in contact with those who had (McCreery and McKenzie, 2013, p. 583).