Dr Elkington on Chinese passengers; the use of Personal Detail Cards

In his work as the Chief Quarantine Officer of the North-eastern Division, Dr John S C Elkington wrote into quarantine procedures the 19th century Australian prejudice against the Chinese as the principal source of smallpox and hence as being guilty of causing epidemics of this dreaded infectious disease. It was a powerful prejudice that reached its most virulent public expressions in the 1888 social unrest against the arrival of Chinese crew and passengers in Sydney, as in the cases of SS Brisbane, Tsinan, etc., when the Asians were prevented from disembarking for fear of outright violence against them.

In Part IV of Maritime Quarantine Administration, “Management of Quarantine Stations”, published by the Quarantine Service in 1919, its author Dr Elkington makes it quite explicit that the Personal Detail Cards are administered not simply according to the principles of health, but for “enabling classes and families to be kept together” (Elkington, 1919, p. 179). The Cards were utilised to enforce social differentiations in status and power and hence in access to comfort and goods in the liminal situation of being in quarantine, when the boundary between life and death could become blurred in the ever present danger of potentially fatal infectious diseases.

Under the White Australia Policy, when it was paramount that Chinese crew members would under no circumstances be allowed to reside in Australia despite the ongoing necessity to trade with Asia, Dr Elkington singled out the Chinese as worthy of special attention when they were present in the landing party. In a section called “Disembarkation without Preliminary Disinfection”, his instruction is as follows:

“If Chinese passengers are to be landed, opportunity should be given for a Customs Officer to check the numbers going ashore. This can be done from a launch alongside, or, in the case of quarantine for small-pox, a properly-vaccinated Customs Officer may be allowed aboard for the purpose. He should wear overalls in the manner prescribed for boarding vessels in quarantine, and should undergo any prescribed precautionary disinfecting measures when his work is completed” (Elkington, 1919, pp. 179-180).

Under a system of race-based control, the number of the essentially undesirable Other, such as the Chinese, was a matter subject to extra vigilance and surveillance by the authorities, given that the quarantine policy of Australia at the time played the role of ensuring “racial hygiene”, i.e., the prevention of what racists call “miscegenation”.

Former quarantine station as a site of isolation

Quarantine stations were built and administered as sites of infectious disease control and as a countermeasure against the spread of epidemics. This being the case, quarantine stations were essentially sites of isolation from the rest of society in order to ensure the health of a nation. Whether in recovery or in death, a sick internee in quarantine had the liminal experience of isolation from friends and family in the anxiety-causing temporality of uncertainty. He or she was placed under the care of strangers: doctors, nurses and quarantine staff. Familiarity was expunged from the quarantine experience.

Should this isolation be preserved as part of the heritage of a quarantine station such as North Head, which re-opened as a hotel and as a venue for conferences, weddings and birthday parties in April 2008? The six-volume Detailed Area Conservation Management Plan, published by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in 2001 and prepared for them by heritage architects Paul Davies Pty Ltd, states the following regarding the hermeneutics of isolation:

The Quarantine Station is currently under NPWS authority, which has permitted only controlled and limited public access. Historically there has never been open access to the place. Unrestricted access is not appropriate and will diminish the cultural value of the place.

The nature of access has also been controlled. Internees who were infected with disease were isolated either in hospital or isolation wards. They could not go beyond these boundaries and others could not enter. The Precinct was fenced to enforce this. The fencing remains in this area to reinforce the experience of isolation.

Passengers who were not infected were segregated on site by class (often defined by passenger class on the quarantined ship) and race. This is reflected in the physical layout of the site but is no longer reinforced by fencing.

Staff were also segregated within fenced areas that were isolated from the passengers. Over time there has been varying and controlled access of different groups to parts of the site. This experience should be retained (DACMP, 2001, 189; italics mine).

A little-known nurse death at North Head: 1838

In January 1838 Minerva was quarantined at North Head due to an outbreak of typhus fever on board. It carried Scottish immigrants and a group of German missionaries.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of 10 March 1838 reports 16 deaths in quarantine. One of them was an unnamed nurse. Her burial would have taken place in what is known today as the First Cemetery, now completely overgrown with the gravestones already all removed during the 19th century.


Champion, Shelagh & George Champion. The ship Minerva in quarantine 1838. Killarney Heights, NSW: Shelagh Champion & George Champion, 1993.

Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 10 March 1838, p. 2.

Sydney residents in quarantine: the 1877 and the 1881 smallpox cases

It is commonly known that the North Head Quarantine Station was established in 1832 to isolate sea passengers carrying a dangerous infectious disease or suspected of carrying one. The Station’s powers dealt with those coming from without – they were put in place to deal with external threats. It is also commonly known that the bubonic plague that started in the Rocks area of Sydney’s harbour precinct in January 1900 resulted in the necessity of removing patients and contacts to the Quarantine Station. However, the first case of removal of afflicted Sydney residents to North Head occurred in January 1877. It involved three of the four young daughters of the Holden family from Miller’s Point in the Rocks area, who all suffered from smallpox and did not recover from it. The first to be infected died at home. The other three died on the double-deck, 30-bed hospital ship Faraway. It was moored in Little Sirius Cove on the other side of the harbour in Mosman, because SS Brisbane, which came from China and was believed to be the source of the smallpox outbreak, had already been in Spring Cove at the Quarantine Station since December (Foley, 1995, p. 67). The gravestone of Catherine Holden, who was the first to die at the age of 19 on 6 January 1877, is today preserved in the museum at the Luggage Store Visitor Centre (A14-17) in the Wharf Precinct of the former Quarantine Station, now operating as a hotel called Q Station. The museum is on the waterfront of Spring Cove. For information on her gravestone, see https://ehive.com/account/3671/object/35963/Headstone_Catherine_Holden_.

After Catherine Holden’s death her body was taken to the Quarantine Station – hence the gravestone mentioned above. The third Holden death took place on 13 January 1877, with the second death some time between the 11th and the 13th. The fourth death took place on the 27th. The girls’ father became ill with smallpox on the 15th but survived.

The four Holden girls were buried in the Second Cemetery, which came into use in June 1853. It was situated on a hill behind the Second Class Quarters, which later became the Third Class Precinct.

Although not mentioned by name, Catherine Holden was the smallpox patient referred to by Dr T H Gillman in his letter to Sydney Morning Herald; it was dated 1 January 1877 and was published in the same newspaper the following day. Dr Gillman first attended to Ms Holden at 6.30 pm on 30 December 1876, who was lying ill at home. The Millers Point residence of the Holden family was close to Summerbell’s Wharf, where SS Brisbane was moored. Realising the urgency of a potential epidemic, on the same evening Dr Gillman visited Dr Haynes Gibbes Alleyne, the Health Officer at Port Jackson who was in control of the North Head Quarantine Station. Dr Alleyne immediately ordered the Holden residence to be placed under watch. Dr Gillman did not mention in his letter whether Catherine Holden was removed to quarantine. That she actually died at home while in Dr Gillman’s care was mentioned at a Legislative Assembly hearing that was reported in Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser on 23 January 1877. Dr Gillman visited the patient daily until her death. On 9 January 1877, two other Holden girls became sick with smallpox. Instead of Dr Gillman, it was Dr Louis Foucart who treated the Holdens this time, who also discovered that two more family members, too, had smallpox. On 12 January 1877 the four Holden family members – presumably the father and his three daughters – were all removed to the hospital ship Faraway.

Significantly, as observed by quarantine historian Jean Foley in Foley (1995), the removal of the Holden girls to quarantine possibly prevented a smallpox epidemic from taking place in 1877.

A meticulous study of smallpox in the Australian history of medicine that is Cumpston (1914) mentions the case of the Holden family but not the quarantining of four of its members aboard Faraway (Cumpston, 1914, pp. 10-11). In fact Cumpston is not sure whether the first female who got sick was a Holden or whether she died or recovered. By evaluating the information from the different sources mentioned above, we can state quite confidently that it was Catherine Holden. An important finding is, however, made on the same pages in Cumpston (1914), in that the outbreak was caused by a case of smallpox on board SS Brisbane, which was discovered on 12 December 1876 with the patient dying the following day; and that the Holden family resided within the “shipping zone” of the Brisbane, which was anchored in Sydney Harbour. The Brisbane was removed to the Quarantine Station as a result of the first and fatal case of smallpox. Another case of smallpox was discovered on the vessel on 18 December, while it was already in quarantine. The quarantine effectively stopped any further spreading of the disease from SS Brisbane. The steamship was eventually released from quarantine on 27 January 1877 (Cumpston, 1914, p. 10).

During the smallpox epidemic in Sydney in 1881, which began in the month of May, North Head was again used as a destination for Sydney residents infected with smallpox and their contacts. Dr Cumpston (1880-1954), appointed in 1921 as Director-General of Health and Director of Quarantine after many yeas of distinguished service in public health and in the quarantine service, observed that laxness at a quarantine station is a key factor in the spread of diseases:

It is interesting to note that amongst those persons removed to the Quarantine Station seven developed small-pox after arriving at the station, and it is quite clear that the carelessness of the authorities in permitting free contact between some of the patients and some of the others isolated was directly responsible for some, at any rate, of those cases (Cumpston, 1914, p. 20).

During the 1881 smallpox epidemic the total number of deaths was 40, which represented 25.9% of those suffering from the disease (Cumpston, 1914, p.13). Vaccination against smallpox was widely available since 1840 in England, when it completely replaced the earlier, and less effective, practice of variolation (Riedel, 2005, p. ?). However, revaccinations were necessary to ensure lifelong immunity against smallpox.

50 of the estimated 572 burials at the Quarantine Station were Sydney residents who died either before or during quarantine.


Cumpston, J H L (1914). The history of small-pox in Australia, 1788-1908. Melbourne: Albert J Mullett.

Foley, Jean Duncan (1995). In quarantine: a history of Sydney’s quarantine station 1828-1984. Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.

Riedel, Stefan (2005). Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination. Proceedings (Baylor University Medical Center), 18(1), pp. 21-25.

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 family.ozcorners.net/tree/11.htm.

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.

1913 – smallpox outbreak

Public health in Australia faced a great challenge in 1913 when there was a smallpox outbreak that by the month of July had already affected the three States of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – “patient zero” was believed to be a steward from SS Zealandia which came from Vancouver, who infected a young Sydney woman working at an underclothing factory in Chalmers Street through social contact three months earlier in April, when she visited him at his mother’s house. The woman then passed the disease on to her co-workers in the factory. July was a significant month in this outbreak in that panic was generated in society when the vaccine supply was exhausted. Furthermore, public opinion in some quarters turned against the North Head Quarantine Station when, given its proximity to the highly popular seaside suburb of Manly, it had to deal with admissions of over 1000 people who were either sick with smallpox or had contact with someone who was infected with the disease. The majority of the smallpox cases were in Sydney, and the spread of Variola major virus did not stop there until 1917, three years after the outbreak of the Great War. (Australia, like the rest of the world, was to face the much greater onslaught of the Spanish influenza pandemic the following year.) Despite the large number of smallpox patients in 1913, the strain of this dreaded disease was a mild one, with only one death recorded in Australia, namely that of a 29-year-old female patient in Sydney who died shortly after giving birth to a healthy baby boy.

Drain cover outside P5, north side

As the time approaches midday, I was delighted to discover very faint carvings of Chinese characters on top of the six clear ones – which I already knew about before – on the slate drain cover outside P5 on Main Axial Street, one of the former first class passenger buildings at the North Head Quarantine Station which also includes a fine dining room with lead windows and a servery. In the strong sunlight I was able to make out one of the faint characters as cai, which means wealth, as in facai (getting rich). However, despite their faintness, I could tell from the outlines of the remaining illegible characters that in this instance cai was not used as part of the Chinese New Year saying zhaocai jinbao, a customary stylistic rendition of which can be found, well-rendered in black ink, on a rock face off the road to the Wharf Precinct of the same quarantine station.

A people currently under the colonial rule of Chinese such as Tibetans, who as a whole are deeply religious as Vajrayana Buddhists, are typically critical of the grass roots materialism of the Chinese. It can be said quite fairly that for those Chinese who still chose to come to Australia under the unfriendly circumstances of the White Australia Policy, materialism was their motivation. It was certainly not about becoming a member of the young Australian nation, which excluded non-Europeans as a matter of policy since its rebirth as a Federation, with an identity of its own as distinct from the British Empire, in 1901.

The Chinese engraving on the P5 drain cover appears unfinished, but the dating by its author, which consists of four characters, is clearly visible: Minguo 19, which is equivalent to 1930 in the Western Gregorian calendar. But given the strict racial demarcation instituted at the North Head Quarantine Station at the time, how did a Chinese person end up in the First Class Precinct? A similar question can be posed in regard to the well-executed “Talking to the Moon” poem on the twin drain covers that until recently were outside P13, the kitchen and the cook’s quarters in the Second Class Precinct at the northern end of Main Axial Street. Is it possible that these three drain covers were transferred from the Quarters for Asiatics for purely practical reasons?

East Asia and Australian quarantine history

Given the absence of any publications in English on the relationship between Australian quarantine history and East Asian public health and quarantine, Professor Kohei Wakimura’s recent article, “Quarantine, international relations and East Asia: The late 19th century and the inter-war period,” published in Taipei, Taiwan in 2011, importantly fills the gap in this aspect of quarantine studies and establishes the ground for a hermeneutic Annährung between Australia and, in this particular case, Japan. For example, given the frequency of Japanese steamship arrivals at the North Head Quarantine Station between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, carrying mostly Chinese passengers and cargo from Hong Kong, the maritime connection between Australia and Japan from the perspective of quarantine is an unexplored area of research that invites investment and development.

Illegible and semi-legible engravings and inscriptions as abstract art

Reports vary as to the exact number of passengers’ and crew members’ engravings and inscriptions at North Head: anything between one to two thousand, which means that no one really knows the exact number. This is because the great majority of them have faded, i.e. mercilessly eroded by the harsh elements of salt and rain in an exposed landscape such as North Head, which are massive cliffs standing as eternal sentinels at the entrance to Sydney Harbour, with one side of them facing the great Pacific Ocean. Time is the enemy when it comes to preservation of historical artefacts such as the North Head engravings and inscriptions at the former Quarantine Station and at a uniquely formed cliff edge called Old Man’s Hat, not far from the Station’s boundaries on the southeast.

To the researcher as well as the casual visitor, engravings and inscriptions which are half- or totally illegible can be frustrating to look at, simply because one cannot make any sense of them. We come up against a wall: it is as if the artefacts merge into the sandstone surfaces, on which they were inscribed, and disappear – not from the life-world of perception, but from the horizon of interpretation. They go back to where they come from.

What if these faded artefacts are perceived as abstract art instead? In experiencing abstract art, full understanding is not expected of the viewer, because it points to the interiority of experience itself, which varies from individual to individual and is characterised by the natural hues of ambiguity instead of the blinding clarity of rational explanations. We are, as discussed in a recent online article on the great abstract artist Cy Twombly in The Philosopher’s Mail (http://thephilosophersmail.com/perspective/the-great-artists-cy-twombly), only on the cusp of comprehending something, which may or may not be the thing that we think we comprehend. As Dasein, being-on-the-cusp has a temporality all of its own, which invites a nuanced understanding or conversation instead of all-too-confident statements and proclamations.