A statement of purpose: on the Australian legacy of racism

Since its inception in October 2013 this blog has mostly covered the subject matter of racism against non-Europeans, particularly East Asians, in the history of quarantine stations in Australia. The main reason for this is that in both academic and popular discourses, racism in quarantine is not discussed enough. In fact there has been no space or forum for an Australian scholar whose non-European heritage would be pathologised during the heydays of quarantine stations under their racist schema. Hence the reason for this blog as an expression of intellectual resistance; and may many more written materials by non-European Australians follow.

Given the dispossession of Indigenous Australians, who are yet to be formally recognised as first Australians in our 114-year-old Constitution, Australia is a country fraught with problems caused by a legacy of racism: the very foundation of the Federation in 1901 was established upon the exclusion of non-Europeans. Even to this day, in our so-called multicultural democracy, many immigrants, particularly those of non-European background, are challenged by conservatives – let alone outright racists – when they lay claim to Australian identity.

Australia today is undergoing a major demographic shift: precisely the kind that was feared and loathed by the quarantine administrators of the past. For those who cling to the old dream of restoring Anglo-Celtic supremacy against the steady streams of multicultural immigration that began in 1975, quarantine stations, as sites of Australian heritage, can be places of nostalgia for a past glory. However, given the historical reality of large groups of Asians and Pacific Islanders having gone through the Australian quarantine system as Australia managed to find a profitable position in the economy of the Asia-Pacific region – then largely aided by the transnational hegemony of British colonialism -, quarantine stations, as sites of heritage, are also contested grounds where European and non-European identities continue to play out against one another. The fundamental question to ask is always: Whose heritage? Or can we appreciate – but not necessarily morally approve – all heritage aspects of quarantine stations under the one heading of “Australian identity”? This can only happen if the history of racist oppression of non-Europeans at Australian quarantine stations can be truly integrated into a national discourse and be not limited to anything less than that, out of a concern not to offend European sensibilities. Generally speaking, when it comes to the legacy of racism in this country, Australians fall short of the intellectual courage of Germans in their educational ability to confront the horrors and the aftermaths of National Socialism.

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The Grundfrage

What is the Grundfrage that should be asked when studying the history of Australian quarantine stations? Was it not the case that the non-European race, especially the Chinese, and epidemics were irrationally conflated, to the extent that the non-white race itself was perceived as a dangerous disease to be kept out and stamped out? The administration of quarantine stations reflected a “white power” arrangement that ensured there was no ambiguity whatsoever about the pecking order of racial hierarchy in Australian society under the White Australia Policy. That the Quarters for Asiatics were once referred to as “Wexford Street” by quarantine staff indicated the continuous identification of being Asian with social filth that structured their prejudiced consciousness.

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”.