Among all the past and present sites of detention that I visited on my trip to Australia last month, in some ways there is most to say about the old quarantine station at North Head, Sydney. But in other ways there is least to say, because so many excellent scholars have already written so much, and so well. Compared to Alison Bashford, who has been going there regularly for nearly twenty years, or the historical archaeologists on the Quarantine Project who spent months on the site uncovering and documenting over 1,600 inscriptions on the rocks there and investigating their stories through archival research, my own experience of the site is fleeting indeed.
To get to North Head you catch a fast ferry from Circular Quay in the very heart of Sydney, tucked between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There’s a slower ferry too, but I took the fast one, a low-slung catamaran that moved across the water faster than any other boat I’ve ever been on, I think. As it draws away from the quay, you begin to get a sense of the size and complexity of this enormous natural harbour: to aft you can see under the bridge, where it continues deep inland, while on either side you pass urban coves and inlets—to starboard, Farm Cove with the botanical gardens surrounding it, then the deeper Woolloomoolloo Bay where an aircraft carrier is among the grey-painted naval vessels at the wharf, and these are only the first two you pass. Soon you can see down the harbour, too. The ferry scuds over the waves across the mouth of North Harbour (the northern branch of the main harbour), and you can see the destination: the steep sides of North Head, overlooking the harbour mouth and beyond it the Pacific.
Like the quarantine station at Point Nepean, the one at North Head—which was founded a couple of decades earlier and remained in operation until a little later—is just inside the mouth of a natural harbour, where a port city had developed further inland. It isn’t as remote: Sydney Cove, where the European settlement began, is only a few miles away across the water (Melbourne is forty miles away from Point Nepean on the other side of Port Phillip), and even with the circuitous route over two bridges and around the northern coves and inlets you could drive there from central Sydney in under forty minutes if the traffic wasn’t too bad. But, just as Point Nepean is as for from Melbourne as you can be while still being close to Melbourne, North Head is as far from Sydney as you can be while still being in the city.
The sites are similar in other ways, past and present. The national park at Point Nepean begins at the edge of the plushy weekend resort of Portsea, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Phillip. The national park at North Head begins at the edge of the plushy suburb of Manly, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Jackson (the official name for Sydney Harbour). The quarantine stations and their grounds, on your right as you enter the national park and facing the harbour, not the sea, were added to the parks more recently in both cases, because maritime quarantine restrictions survived a bit longer than coastal artillery batteries. Long-range bomber aircraft (and, later, intercontinental ballistic missiles) made the latter irrelevant by the middle of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t till a little later that mass civilian air travel did the same for the former. In 1963, the year the North Head fortifications fell permanently out of use, the teenager Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg emigrated to Australia from Holland by ship with his family and changed his name to Harry Vanda en route.
And although it’s much closer to the city than Point Nepean is to Melbourne, North Head feels remote and isolated. It’s been much more ambitiously developed as a heritage destination (‘Q Station‘) than Point Nepean, and no doubt at certain times of day and year it’s busy with visitors—you can stay there, in the restored accommodation blocks, and the ghost tours on offer include one that lets you stay overnight. But it was quiet when I walked around the large site: on the way in I saw a masked lapwing nervously pacing about the lawn, its yellow face bright in the sunshine, and on the way out I passed an echidna rummaging its snout in the sandy soil by the road, but I didn’t see many people. Like Point Nepean, the scenic walk out to the head and the old fortifications seemed to be attracting far more visitors, though a school group came through as I sat in the visitor centre by the wharf.
The station is spacious, spread out on the slopes that rise from Spring Cove, and in its time it was rigorously segregated. Accommodation areas reproduced the class hierarchies, and racist hierarchies, of the passenger ships that arrived: the first class passengers in their comfortable accommodation were protected from mingling with second class residents by high fences and a stretch of ‘neutral ground’, while third class passengers were elsewhere again and ‘Asiatics’ were housed in crowded dormitories with an external communal kitchen. Obliged to stay at the station in 1930, the golfer J.H. Kirkwood found the segregation insufficient:
I am an Australian, and I always thought that this was a white man’s country, but when I have seen Chinese, Indians, and Fijians with the same bathing and toilet facilities as white men in this quarantine station I have not been able to help feeling disgust. However, we are resigned to our fate.
The Argus (Melbourne), 6 March 1930
For residents suspected of carrying disease, or showing symptoms, there was an isolation zone at one end of the site; for those who became ill there was a hospital, and in the final necessity a burial ground.
The visitor centre is down by the wharf, where a steep-sided little valley runs down to a beautiful beach. At the top of the sand a line of trees, their branches bare but for large flame-red flowers, played host to a busily feeding squadron of rainbow lorikeets. There’s a set of buildings nearby that were familiar to me from Point Nepean: a boiler house with a tall brick chimney, and a disinfecting room where luggage was steamed in enormous cast-iron autoclaves. The visitor centre, with a couple of rooms of historical displays and a somewhat gloomy café, was adapted from the old luggage store—the boiler house is now a restaurant, but that’s only open in the evening.
On the road down to the wharf you also pass the most visible remaining inscriptions, carved into the sandstone: one of them is shown at the top of this post. The Quarantine Project has produced a beautiful book about these (I bought a copy in the visitor centre, and read about Kirkwood as I ate my lunch) as well as many academic articles. Some of their most fascinating work, for me, is on the inscriptions that weren’t carved into exposed sandstone by nineteenth-century sailors and emigrants, but were scratched or scrawled onto the internal walls of the building on the site that was used as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, as the quarantine station’s operations wound down. Although the building has now been adapted into a wedding venue (!), many of these are still to be seen in backrooms and above head height. I didn’t locate this building, A20, though I suspect that it may have been one that I peered into as a site employee touched up the external paintwork by the door. Inscriptions and graffiti are a kind of source that I should think about in my work on refugee camps: they’re omnipresent, as photos from formal and informal camps show.
A final similarity with Point Nepean isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site, or not that I noticed. In 1999, Point Nepean briefly accommodated several hundred humanitarian evacuees, Kosovo Albanians evacuated from Macedonia during the NATO air war against Serbia: even humanitarian evacuees needed to be confined in some way and ‘distanced’ from the rest of the population. Something similar happened in 1975, when over two thousand five hundred Vietnamese children—some of them the children of US servicemen—were evacuated from Saigon in what was known as ‘Operation Babylift’. About three hundred were brought to Australia, mostly to Sydney, in the midst of bitter recriminations over the country’s participation in the war and responsibility for Vietnamese refugees. Like the main ‘Babylift’ to the US, the available scholarship on this subject is mostly interested in its implications for international adoption, and doesn’t—as far as I know—say much about the experience of the evacuation itself. But the quarantine station at North Head was one of the centres that received evacuees (there’s a helpful Tumblr about it compiled in 2015 by an undergraduate student in history at the University of Sydney, who only gives her name as Stephanie): this picture from the Sydney Morning Herald shows prime minister Gough Whitlam visiting them.
Unlike the Kosovo Albanians nearly twenty-five years later, the Babylift evacuees mostly stayed in Australia, and that was the intention from the start. And surely it was in part simple pragmatism that meant they were accommodated at North Head, where the quarantine station was already being decommissioned and there was medically equipped accommodation for a couple of hundred children and their carers. Once again, though, I found myself struck by the isolation and confinement, at a site then mostly used as an immigration detention centre, of people displaced for humanitarian reasons.
Thanks to Meighen Katz for telling me about ‘Q Station’ and its history
All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0) except the Google Map
and the photo of Gough Whitlam (click for source)