Elkington’s friend Cilento: Peel Island Lazaret and systematic racial oppression in public health

Sir Raphael Cilento, Chief Quarantine Officer of Brisbane, was a good friend of Dr John Simeon Colebrook Elkington and succeeded his position in 1928 (Parsons, 2010, p. 88). The two medical men shared the ideology of racial segregation and hierarchisation at quarantine stations and used their authority utmost to institutionalise it. Cilento’s racist ideas about public health were given administrative, architectural and medical expressions on the Peel Island Lazaret near Brisbane, where the sexes and the races were strictly segregated; and where the physical distance between the accommodation for “whites” and the accommodation for “coloureds” was deliberately significant in order to impose a social regime of racial hierarchy based on white supremacy. By doing this, the distance between Europeans and non-Europeans took on a double meaning operating on two levels: spatial as well as social, with the former reinforcing the latter. European Australians had greater socio-cultural value than “coloured” Australians such as Aboriginals, Chinese and Pacific Islanders, and this differentiation in worth impacted on the experience of being in quarantine and in treatment at a lazaret such as Peel Island. In fact until it was made a lazaret in 1907, Peel Island had been used as a quarantine station since 1873. Despite the site’s rich Aboriginal history, once it became a quarantine ground, the Quandamooka people of Moreton Bay was denied their traditional access. Queensland law at the time took away the fundamental rights of Indigenous Australians to move and to settle as they pleased (Juckes et al, 2013, pp. 531-532).

Chief Quarantine Officer Cilento can be considered extraordinarily racist for his enthusiastic leadership in pre-dawn police raids on Aboriginal camps suspected of harbouring sufferers and contacts of leprosy (Hansen’s disease), putting most energy into this “public health” campaign during 1931 (Parsons, 2010, pp. 88-89). The interwar period was a time of consolidation for racialisation of medicine and public health, which aligned them more with ideology rather than science. Such was the colonial legacy of medicine in Australia.


Juckes, Emily, Kelly Greenop and Zbigniew Jarzab, Isolation and segregation: an intercultural analysis of the Peel Island Lazaret. In Alexandra Brown and Andrew Leach (Ed), Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, Volume 2 (Gold Coast, Queensland: SAHANZ, 2013), pp. 529-542.

Parsons, Meg, Defining disease, segregating race: Sir Ralph Cilento, Aboriginal health and leprosy management in twentieth century Queensland. Aboriginal History, 34, 2010, pp. 85-114.


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”.