Quarantine and confinement at Point Nepean

Quarantine station, Point Nepean, lo res

On my first weekend in Melbourne I travelled down to Point Nepean to visit the old quarantine station. It’s not far—a bit over 100km by road—but it took three hours to get there, on a suburban train, a rail replacement bus, and a local bus chugging down the inner shore of the Mornington peninsula.

Port Philip Bay

Melbourne stands on the northern shore of a large and almost completely enclosed bay, Port Philip, whose area is close to two thousand square kilometres. Two peninsulas nearly encircle it, the shorter and stubbier Bellarine to the west and the longer and pointier Mornington to the east. They almost meet: the gap through which the tidal waters of the whole wide bay enter from and empty into the Bass Strait is only about 3km wide, with shoals reducing the channel ships can safely use to barely 1km—I watched a large ship stacked high with containers negotiate the odd s-shaped course between the heads and into the bay. This is the Rip, a dangerous seaway. From Point Nepean, the narrow finger of land at the far end of the Mornington peninsula, you can look out at the calmer waters of the bay on one side and the crashing breakers of the Southern Ocean on the other. The point is, or was, heavily militarized: half-buried—or more than half—in its sandy slopes are the old artillery emplacements, munitions stores, and barracks of Fort Nepean, which defended the bay from the late nineteenth century until after the second world war. The whole area is now a national park. A sign near the entrance acknowledges who the land was taken from, and the parks service’s current master plan [PDF] promises a fuller account of both their history in the place they called Mon Mon and their present connection to it.

Point Nepean
Looking east, with the bay on the left and the ocean on the right

Just inside the bay, a few kilometres from the head, is one of the last bits of the point to be vacated by the military, and most recent additions to the national park: the former quarantine station.  It was founded in 1852, as the population boom brought on by the Victoria gold rush was just beginning. (The older settlement of Sydney had formally established a quarantine station at North Head a couple of decades earlier.) Seventy-five thousand people arrived in Victoria in 1852—Melbourne’s colonial population was 23,000 in 1851—and the boom continued until the 1890s, by which time the city had nearly half a million people. Among the 1852 arrivals were the passengers of the clipper Ticonderoga, which departed my home town of Liverpool in August and arrived in Port Philip in November. But between Liverpool bay and the Rip nearly a hundred of its passengers had died, mainly of typhus, and almost four hundred more were ill with fever, dysentery, and diarrhoea. So it was anchored at Point Nepean, where the passengers could be quarantined to protect the city: another seventy died there.

The quarantine station remained in use for over a century, through federation in 1901 and the Quarantine Acts of the early twentieth century that were a distinctively Australian response to the increasing speed and volume of transoceanic travel. It’s a pleasant, slightly eerie place now, with white buildings and mature trees dotting spacious lawns. There were quite a few other visitors around on a sunny winter’s afternoon, but it felt almost deserted nonetheless. Waves broke onto the beach that faces north onto the bay, while clouds rushed overhead in the Southern Ocean wind. In the old boiler house there’s a disinfection apparatus through which luggage was passed. Nearby are two substantial hospital buildings, and further away an isolation hospital and morgue. By the shore, a memorial to the passengers of the Ticonderoga, erected in 2002, marks the site of the station’s original cemetery: in 1952 the remains were moved to protect them from coastal erosion.

I’m interested in quarantine stations because of their connections to other forms of detention and migration control. Just as a contemporary immigration detention centre like Villawood can trace its history back to a migrant hostel and a munitions factory, Australia’s quarantine stations also had many other uses. Adelaide’s equivalent, on Torrens Island, was also the location for a WWI internment camp (near the station, but not actually using the same site). The North Head quarantine station in Sydney Harbour was adapted for use as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, and there’s some really good recent work on it by scholars including Alison Bashford, Anne Clark, Ursula Frederick, Peter Hobbins, and Peta Longhurst, who were involved in a historical archaeology project there run from the University of Sydney. An older article by Alison Bashford and Carolyn Strange connects the quarantine, internment, and asylum detention within Australia’s ‘national histories of detention’. (The transformation of sites like these into destinations for heritage tourism is something I’ll write about once I’ve visited North Head.)

Point Nepean, Quarantine Act, lo resFrom 1952, the Point Nepean quarantine station shared its site with the military, which ran an Officer Cadet School there. The quarantine station was closed in 1978-80, and from 1985 to 1998 the site was used by the School of Army Health. In the early 2000s the site was passed over to a local community trust for heritage management, and then in 2009 incorporated into the national park that occupies the rest of the point and includes the other old military buildings.

In between times, though, the site found another temporary use, which created an unexpected link with some of my other research. I’ve recently written an article about the history of humanitarian evacuations, which will be coming out in Humanity (though not for a while)—I’m also giving a talk on the subject while I’m here in Melbourne. Among the things I read about while researching that were Operation Babylift, the evacuation of children from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, and Operation Safe Haven, the NATO-led evacuation of tens of thousands of Kosova Albanian refugees from Macedonia during the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. Humanitarian evacuations are fascinating (I’ll be supervising a PhD on topic as of October), but I didn’t think they had much to do with my main subject, the history of the refugee camp, or the work I’m doing here on asylum detention. But there’s a direct connection. Australia participated in both Operation Babylift and Operation Safe Haven. The children it evacuated from Saigon in the 1970s were accommodated at the North Head immigration detention centre; and of the 4000 or so Kosovo Albanians who were brought to Australia in 1999, around 400 were accommodated at the old quarantine station at Point Nepean. The State Library of Victoria commissioned photographer Emmanuel Santos to document their stay, and a selection of his photos is available to view online. (You can read about Santos here, in an article that, bizarrely, is hosted by the Melbourne soap company Aesop.)

Why were humanitarian evacuees accommodated in detention centres and disused former quarantine stations? I’ve only just started reading about Australia’s participation in Operation Babylift, but it was controversial, as the country’s participation in the Vietnam War had been. So was Operation Safe Haven: Australia is not a member of NATO, and by 1999 the hostility to asylum-seekers and refugees that so striking today was fully established in the country’s political discourse. The Australian government had diplomatic reasons for assisting NATO by participating in the evacuation, but it had political ones for ensuring that the evacuees didn’t stay long. They arrived in May and June, but half were gone by September and only a hundred or so remained (mostly for medical reasons) by April 2000. Their accommodation at sites like Point Nepean and other military facilities raises a bigger question about the connections between the different kinds of accommodation and confinement that I’ve discussed here and in my post about Villawood. Are they simply pragmatic—a matter of putting people in available beds, so to speak? Or do they betray, if not an overarching philosophy, at least a general approach to different mobile populations—even humanitarian evacuees—whose basic principles are exclusion, isolation, and detention?

In 1999, the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) reported that “Every effort was made to enable the Kosovars to participate in the local community.” But if Point Nepean is close to Melbourne, it’s about as far away as ‘close to Melbourne’ can be: a narrow spit of land that’s literally at the end of the road. If my new PhD supervisee decides to research Operation Safe Haven, and interviews any evacuees who lived there, he may want to ask them how much opportunity they had to ‘participate in the local community’ before they were shepherded out of the country.

A Kosovo Albanian boy at Point Nepean, by Emmanuel Santos / State Library of Victoria
A Kosovo Albanian boy at Point Nepean, by Emmanuel Santos / State Library of Victoria

 

Thanks to Mary Tomsic for telling me about Point Nepean
and the Kosovo Albanians who stayed there.

Robert Carr wrote a doctoral thesis (2011)
about the Kosovo Albanians
in Australia
which you can access on the
University of Wollongong
e-repository here.

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the photo by Emmanuel Santos (click that for source).

 

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