Beejapore, 1853

The quarantine of the 1676-ton St John’s sailing ship Beejapore at North Head, which began on Friday 7 January 1853 after arriving in Spring Cove the previous day, was a tale of profound misery – 800 immigrants on shore in crowded conditions and 56 deaths (55 of which were children) at sea (Haines, p. 12), with further deaths of 62 at the Quarantine Station. Those passengers who were deemed to have not come into contact with the diseased were allowed to remain on ship while it was moored in Spring Cove; they numbered over 200. The Beejapore was a new experiment in the transportation of immigrants: being double-decked, it carried 967 assisted immigrants, with 342 children among them (Haines, p. 12), who were needed to build the colonial economy of Australia. The number of crew was 65, which means that the Beejapore carried 1032 in total (Haines, p. 12). As the North Head Quarantine Station could only accommodate 150 people at the time – quite ill-prepared indeed to handle the increasing demand for immigrants in New South Wales -, presumably not all the sick could be treated on the Hospital Ground. A hospital ship called Harmony was purchased by the government and moored in Spring Cove to handle the large number of patients, the exact number of which was not known. However, given that a passengers’ petition published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 19 January 1853 stated that there were over 700 on Healthy Ground, and given that a total number of 800 were at the Station as mentioned above, there should be over 100 sick, with many presumably transferred to the Harmony. By the end of the 34-day quarantine of the Beejapore (Haines, p. 16), the death rate of the sick was over 60%, which indicated that the hospital treatment was precarious rather than effective. Of the 62 who died at North Head, ten were adults and the rest children, with typhoid fever to blame (Haines, p. 16). The dead were buried in the First Cemetery, on the sloping ground above the Wharf Precinct. Because the graves were within easy view of the passengers on Healthy Ground on top of the hill, some of whom were frightened by the proximity of these reminders of human mortality, the First Cemetery was levelled in May 1853 with the fencing and the headstones removed, despite the recent Beejapore burials. The Second Cemetery came into being on the upper grounds behind the Healthy Ground, with the first burial there taking place in June 1853. As the immigrants included a large number of single women, they were quarantined in segregation on the “former Sick Ground” as social attitude at the time frowned upon pre-marital sex, which was a punishable offence during voyage and quarantine. The Beejapore departed Liverpool on 12 October 1852 and arrived in Sydney on 6 January 1853. The 86 days it took to travel to Australia was considered record-breaking at the time. References Foley, Jean. Dentention without crime – reactions of quarantined people in the nineteenth century. The Sydney Papers, 1995, pp. 43-50. Haines, Robin. Doctors at sea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Haines relied mainly on the account provided by Beejapore cabin passenger William Usherwood. Ships in harbour. The Shipping Gazette and Sydney General Trade List, 15 January 1853, p. 17. Usherwood, William. W. Usherwood’s journal of a voyage to Sydney, New South Wales, in the ship Beejapore, Captain I. McLay, October 1852-January 1853, a sojourn in New South Wales and return by the Harbinger, May-June 1853. A transcript of the journal covering the period 12 October 1852-23 February 1863, made by a John Richards, can be viewed at


Why critique of a past Australian event such as the White Australia Policy?

Race for race, during the heydays of the White Australia Policy, Qing China was no less xenophobic when it came to acceptance of non-Chinese domiciled in its dominion. If the White Australia Policy had solely to do with the protection and the maintenance of an Anglo-Celtic Volksgemeinschaft on the Australian continent, one that would ensure a perpetual loyalty to the British Empire and its far-flung national interests in the world, then the architect of White Australia such as the New South Wales Premier Henry Parkes, who counted a prominent Chinese Australian such as Quong Tart among his friends, can be understood, or even forgiven, as a mere ardent advocate of the cultural conservatism of the global Stimmung and Weltanschauung. But was Parkes only following the racialised Zeitgeist of the late 19th century and the early 20th century? Was race all there was to it?

The answer is a resounding no. The White Australia Policy obscured the exploitation and oppression of “coloured” people such as Aboriginal Australians, Chinese, Japanese and Pacific Islanders in the mass construction of the economy of the Colony and subsequently of the Federation. White Australia ensured that these people would be used up to the maximum with their labour but not be allowed to become fully empowered members of Australian society. In the case of widespread indentured labour during the 19th century, the economic arrangements were founded upon bondage. The non-European, non-Aboriginal flotsam and jetsam who somehow managed to stay behind in Australia and eke out a living had to endure invisibility, humiliation, ostracisation and if not violence, when being an Australian was synonymous with being “white”. Work did not make one free; instead it made one “useless” and “unwanted” once one’s labour – the kinetic energy of muscles – was exhausted.

In retrospect, these masses of “coloured” people, faceless, nameless and voiceless in the annals of Australian history, should be remembered and honoured for the massive contributions they had made to the modernisation of Australia as a nation. In the case of quarantine history, given that the Quarters for Asiatics at Australian quarantine stations served as the institutional starting points in public health for these historic mass movements of “coloured” people to contribute to the national economy, these sites, today lying silent and unnamed, are fit places of memorialisation of non-European labour.

Random murders of Chinese under White Australia Policy

When one studies Australian history, incidents of mass violence perpetrated by Europeans against Chinese such as the Buckland River riot in Victoria in 1857 and the Lambing Flat riots in New South Wales in 1861 are well-known. However, not many know about the random murders committed by white Australians against Chinese living in Australia under the White Australia Policy; in fact there is no published study on this subject matter. However, evidence for this disturbing trend in the past can be found in contemporary Chinese community newspapers such as Tung Wah Times.