New post on Refugee History

Fig 4 Way Out

I have a new post up on, about the past, present, and future of Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia. You can read it by clicking this link (or the image).

Before I visited Villawood, I’d already blogged about it on here (link), as one of a series of posts about sites of confinement and containment in modern Australian history—others included Maribyrnong immigration detention centre in Melbourne and the old quarantine stations at Point Nepean, also near Melbourne, and North Head in Sydney.

Photo by me (CC BY 4.0)





Built on slavery, like everything else

University of Glasgow archives and special collections, PHU1/104/1
Gilmorehill House during the construction of the University of Glasgow’s Main Building in the 1860s. University of Glasgow archives and special collections, PHU1/104/1

This post has been updated (23 March 2018)—see below.

The University of Glasgow, where I work, has a beautiful campus. It’s on Gilmorehill, perched above a bend in the river Kelvin in the west end of the city—a commanding position that features heavily in the university’s advertising. But the university only moved here in the 1860s and 70s, over four hundred years after its foundation in 1451. The shift was part of the general westward migration of wealth, power and influence in Glasgow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which still very visibly marks the city. Before that, the university’s buildings had been set around College Green next to the High Street, near the cathedral: ‘some of the most remarkable C17 architecture in Scotland’, the Pevsner architectural guide to Glasgow says, ‘their loss was a tragedy’ (p. 335). But the university needed to sell that large site, to a subsidiary of the North British Railway Company, to pay for the move.

Most of the land the university now occupies on Gilmorehill was purchased as a single estate. It had been constituted in 1800-1803 by one Robert Bogle, who also had a substantial house built for himself here. The university bought the site in 1863 and building work began in April 1867 with the levelling of the hilltop, but the house itself was retained during construction as offices for the architects and contractors. The photograph above shows the house in the late 1860s, with the west quadrangle of the present-day main building going up around it: only after the official completion of the move was the house demolished.

The university’s archives and special collections tweeted the picture a week or two ago. I saw the picture when someone else I follow on Twitter, the Glaswegian musician (and Edinburgh PhD researcher) Diljeet Bhachu, asked what had happened to the house—then swiftly followed that up with a second tweet saying ‘Actually, never mind. A quick google says it was built by a slave owner.’ This was news to me: I’d never thought to find out what was on the hilltop before the university moved up here. But a little research soon introduced me to Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill and many other members of his family. It also brought me straight into contact with Glasgow’s history of slave-ownership, and with real-world examples of the euphemisms that cover it up—reminding me of the words of Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, and Keith McClelland:

Slave-ownership is virtually invisible in British history. It has been elided by strategies of euphemism and evasion originally adopted by the slave-owners themselves and subsequently reproduced widely in British culture.

—Hall et al., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership:
Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 2014), p. 1

The first of these was on the university’s own website, where the ‘University of Glasgow Story’, a database of historical information about people in the institution’s past, has a page about the vanished building. This notes that it was ‘built by the West Indies merchant Robert Bogle Junior’.

‘West Indies merchant’: this is one of the very examples that Hall and her colleagues give on the first page of their book, when they show how modern-day resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or the University of Glasgow Story, “continue to reflect (consciously or otherwise) the strategies of the slave-owners of the early nineteenth century, who evaded the very term ‘slave-owner’.” The database that they themselves produced, Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, is less coy: as well as being a ‘merchant’, in 1813 Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill inherited from his brother a quarter of Dunkley’s Dry River Estate in Jamaica, which had been producing sugar and rum since at least the 1780s. Other members of the family owned the rest.

Robert Bogle died in 1821, before the British empire finally abolished slavery, but when it did, in the 1830s, two hundred and eighty-six people were enslaved on the estate. Members and in-laws of the extended Bogle family, including Robert Bogle’s son Archibald, shared £6230 5s 8d in compensation from the British government for the ‘property’ they had lost: in the simplest terms of purchasing power parity that would come to well over half a million pounds at 2016 prices, though by other methods of calculating worth it’s a much more significant sum.* (I used the site for this.)

There are many other Glasgow Bogles in the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database, and a couple in the ODNB. It’s a bit hard to trace the connections between them, not least because across several generations and several branches of the family the names George, Robert, and Archibald recur frequently. The LBSO database thinks Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill (?1757–1821) was the son of Archibald Bogle and Janet Cathcart. If that’s the case then he must have had a cousin of the same name, a similar age, and a near identical occupation: the ODNB entry for the George Bogle (1700–1784), ‘merchant’, who was four times Rector of the University of Glasgow, notes that his inheritor was his son Robert Bogle. It’s possible that these late C18th/early C19th Robert Bogles are in fact one and the same, but it’s just as likely that they shared a name—after all, George Bogle 1700-84 was the son of another Robert, and the father of another George.

In any case, two things are clear. First, many of the Glasgow Bogles profited from enslavement, and from the ‘compensation’ paid to slave owners after 1833. Second, modern-day reference works including the University of Glasgow Story and the (immensely larger and more authoritative) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography do a very good job of hiding the fact. The former has Robert Bogle, builder of Gilmorehill House, as an innocent-sounding ‘West Indies merchant’. The latter’s entry on George Bogle (1700-84) is packed with the sorts of euphemism that Catherine Hall and her colleagues identify: ‘Bogle’s mercantile career from the later 1720s was focused on the colonial trades of sugar and tobacco’; ‘His son Robert Bogle inherited the family estates, and the dynasty continued in the mercantile world.’

This is a direct example of the way wealth derived from enslavement shaped the city of Glasgow as we live in it today. As an example of the way enslavement shaped the University of Glasgow, it’s only indirect: this is about how the estate the university bought was constituted, not about the sources of the university’s own wealth. It would be interesting to know how the university profited directly from enslavement, as it surely did. But if the institution’s self-history, the ‘University Story’, euphemizes and disguises the role of enslavement in making the city, I doubt it’s ready to take a hard look at its own past.


UPDATE: A colleague informs me that I spoke too soon: the university is already investigating its connections with slavery, following a decision made by its senior management group (SMG) in July 2016. The following information—a preliminary acknowledgement—has now been prepared for the University Story; below that is the SMG’s statement.

Glasgow was one of Britain’s leading centres of trade with the Chesapeake and West Indian colonies, meaning that large amounts of slave-produced commodities such as tobacco, sugar, cotton and rum came into the city. First the ‘Tobacco Lords’ and then the ‘West India merchants’ were wealthy and powerful elites in and around Glasgow. While not all owned enslaved people and plantations, some did, and in both cases much of their wealth derived from slave labour.

The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow issued a statement in July 2016 acknowledging that although the University was active in the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery, the University also received gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefited from the proceeds of slavery. On the authorisation of SMG a research team is evaluating the nature and extent of the University’s connections with people who profited from slavery. At the same time, a steering committee is preparing a report for SMG so that it can adopt a series of measures designed to begin the process of addressing and redressing this history. As a first step, in 2017 the University of Glasgow became the first British University to join the international consortium of Universities Studying Slavery.

And here’s that statement on slavery, approved by the Senior Management Group on 11 July 2016:

The University of Glasgow acknowledges that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it received some gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. Income from such gifts and bequests has been used in supporting academic activity undertaken by the students and staff of the University.

The University notes that, during the era of slavery, many of its staff adopted a clear anti-slavery position. For example, the Principal and Clerk of Senate, on behalf of the Senate of the University, petitioned the House of Commons in 1788, and again in 1792, against slave holding and slave trading; in 1791, the University honoured William Wilberforce with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his anti-slavery work; Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson and John Millar all wrote against slavery in their publications; and James McCune Smith, an emancipated slave, graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1837, and, in so doing, became the first African-American in the world to graduate in medicine. Smith came to study at the University of Glasgow for this degree as he was barred from doing so in the United States because of his colour.

The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow has instructed that research be undertaken and a report prepared on the University’s connections with those persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. When it receives this report, the SMG will consider the most appropriate way of acknowledging those connections.


That initial research project is being carried out in the current academic year: see this report from last September in The Scotsman for more information. I look forward to seeing the results of the research—and the actions the university takes in response.


*To be in the same sort of relationship to the average wage today as someone earning a wage of £6230 5s 8d in 1835, you would need to be earning over £5m a year. Slaves, of course, were not paid a wage.

North Head quarantine station

Forest Monarch

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 14.21.53
Port Jackson, with the skyscrapers of central Sydney visible bottom centre

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.

Hospital area
A covered walkway in the hospital area

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.

Spring Cove beach and wharf
Spring Cove beach

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.

Gough Whitlam at North HeadA 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.


Sydney from North Head
Sydney from North Head


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)

Migrants, students, and detainees at Maribyrnong

Maribyrnong immigration detention centre is a discreet sort of place. It’s in a nondescript part of Maribyrnong, a suburb about five miles northwest of central Melbourne. The road it’s on is long and straight: it carries a lot of traffic, but mostly through traffic. As you walk out from the nearest tram stop you pass some warehouse-type retail units and a softplay on the left (‘Funtopia’), and a disused student village on the right. There’s no sign to mark the IDC on the road, a wedge-shaped white concrete wall bearing the number 53 on both side between a couple of small car-parks, and a driveway that’s shared with one of them. As I got there, a small delivery was pulling confusedly out of one car-park and straight into the next.

1 Number 53

The driveway itself, though not very long, kinks to the left behind the corner of a building. You can’t see round that, but you notice a surveillance camera on a high post, and if you walk up the driveway under the camera and round the bend you’re immediately exposed to the unsmiling face of the Australian immigration enforcement bureaucracy. A high metal security gate blocks the drive, while the footpath leads up to a dull institutional building, a securitized version of the reception building at a caravan site or a 1970s roadside hotel. Signs on the wall give instructions to visitors, and warn you, as if you didn’t already know, that the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. I didn’t hang around, and I didn’t take a photograph: the detention system doesn’t like you looking at it, and you really feel it. 6 MapAt the end of the driveway as I walked back out, the delivery van pulled up by the kerb near me in the car-park next door. The driver wound down the window and asked if I knew where the detention centre was. ‘It’s just up there’, I said, pointing. He was a first-generation African immigrant.

Like Villawood in Sydney, the detention centre at Maribyrnong (the stress in on the short first syllable, maribbernong) was build on the site of a postwar migrant hostel that was itself built on the site of a munitions factory. Maribyrnong was centre for weapons manufacture for most of the twentieth century, ‘the arsenal of Australia’, as the nearby street names Cordite Avenue and Ordnance Reserve still attest. In 1942 the main explosives factory was expanded with a New Pyrotechnic Section ‘to produce fuses, flares, tracers and smoke grenades’—this was the area that was taken over for the hostel. (It was also the headquarters of Commonwealth Hostels Ltd, the private company set up by the government to accommodate migrants, which operated 64 hostels around the country.)

The Maribyrnong hostel wasMaribyrnong, Victoria, 1965 originally made up of Nissen huts, like the ones in this picture. Few of these corrugated iron military huts were used in Australia during the war: instead, thousands were bought from the British government in the late 1940s, though hardly any survive. They provided basic accommodation for the postwar migrants—at first, mostly displaced persons from European camps. As in other hostels, the quality of accommodation was improved later, partly in response to protests from residents.

An architectural historian I spoke to in Melbourne, Renée Miller-Yeaman, makes an important point [PDF] about the standard of accommodation in these hostels. There was a shortage of housing in Australia after the second world war, and the government faced pressure from its people to provide better homes—pressure that was partly coming from returned servicemen, and hard to resist. But at the same time, Australian policymakers were committed to increasing the country’s population (and therefore its pool of future conscripts) through state-supported mass immigration. That support included providing accommodation to immigrants on arrival. But the wider Australian population—extremely homogeneous in those years—was more ambivalent about immigration, especially in the early postwar years when the newcomers were largely ‘reffos’ from DP camps, many of them Jewish. To keep a lid on anti-immigrant sentiment, the government had to ensure that migrant housing was visibly inferior to the houses of the existing population.

Nissen huts fitted the bill, though the people living in them weren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, especially as the sources of migration shifted from the DP camps to the countries of central and southern Europe. It was only later that metal huts at Maribyrnong were replaced with two-storey apartment blocks for families (the Midway Centre), and a ring of smaller buildings for single men (the Phillip Centre). As Renée argues, at sites like Villawood and Maribyrnong the history of immigration to Australia intersects with the history of home in Australia and what it means.

By the early 1980s Australia’s ‘assisted passage’ scheme was being phased out. ‘From that time’, a state heritage service report [PDF] on Maribyrnong says, ‘migrant centres focused on providing arrival accommodation and settlement services to refugees and humanitarian program entrants’. This is true, but the report doesn’t mention that by 1983 a section of the site was already being used as a detention centre. By the late 1980s only this part was active, and the rest of the former hostel was redeveloped as student accommodation for several local universities. As far as I can tell, the same buildings were reused. A plaque on a stubby obelisk at the angle of Williamson St and Hampstead Rd commemorates the opening of The Student Village on 2 Mar 1990.  This is the disused student village I mentioned earlier: after hosting undergraduates for quarter of a century, it was closed in 2016 and is currently awaiting redevelopment. Victoria University, which now owns the site, is trying to lease out five of its non-residential buildings, though it’s hard to see who’d want them when they’re surrounded by empty student flats.

The village is an eerie sort of place, though it’s only a year and a half since the last students left. That’s long enough for the windows to be dusty on the inside, and their curtains, tied in a knot, to look grubby: the whole site, understandably, has an air of neglect. But most of the site feels abandoned rather than derelict. A few blocks that were evidently emptied earlier are fenced off (‘Warning Buildings Contain Asbestos’), and their gaping windows reveal interiors richly redecorated with graffiti. But otherwise the windows are dusty but unbroken: the lawns are tufty but not overgrown. At the volleyball court the floodlights have been left on, bulbs glaring irrelevantly in the daytime. The lights are still on around the verandah of the academic centre, too, but that’s probably deliberate: it’s one of the buildings the university wants to lease, and the lights may be intended to persuade the frightening local children not to smash the windows. As you walk around a site that’s empty but for magpies and the odd rabbit, you half expect the zombies to lurch into view.

There are still a Nissen hut and a Romney hut on the site (I saw them both but I don’t know how to tell the difference), and these are now heritage listed. I heard from Renée that the ones at Villawood have been relocated to a specific part of the site, supposedly to be turned into a heritage attraction, while the detention centre there is expanded and upgraded as the only onshore detention centre in Australia. At that point the Maribyrnong centre will apparently be closed. But for the moment it’s still open, its high security fences backing onto the student village that was once a migrant hostel. A contact in Melbourne who used to visit detainees there told me about a Vietnamese man awaiting deportation who’d cheerfully pointed out the buildings where he and his uncle had lived when they arrived in Australia as refugees.

The fences at the back and side of the detention centre are just as heavily surveilled as the gate at the front, and signs say ‘Commonwealth land – keep out’. Here, I did take a couple of photos. There weren’t many people around. In the corner of the compound a Teeth On Wheels van was parked up, the sign on its side promising ‘a positive dental experience’ to the detainees. There can’t be much else that’s positive about being held in a detention centre whose authorities won’t even let you out to visit the dentist.

7 Teeth on Wheels

Thanks to Juliet Flesch for talking to me about Maribyrnong,
and Renée Miller-Yeaman for telling me about her work on Villawood

Historical information about the site is sourced from
the linked report by Heritage Council Victoria 

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the archive photo of a family arriving at Maribyrnong:
National Archives of Australia, series A12111,
‘control symbol’ 1/1965/22/25

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).


Bombs, babies, bands, barbed wire: Villawood’s many histories


How did my research on the history of the refugee camp lead me to AC/DC? It’s not as long or unlikely a story as you might think.

I’m in Australia at the moment on a month-long fellowship at the University of Melbourne. I’m using my time here to understand Australia’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers in the context of the history of the refugee camp. There’s a difference between a refugee camp (usually set up for a large number of people arriving over a short period of time) and a detention centre (usually set up to hold smaller numbers of people arriving over longer periods of time), but I had a feeling that it would be useful to think about sites of detention in the same way I’ve been thinking about refugee camps.

My approach to the history of the refugee camp is to explore the ‘biography’ of specific sites—that’s what took me to Rivesaltes last year. Focusing on a particular place reveals continuities and connections that you can miss if you focus either on high-level decision-making (whether by politicians or the chiefs of humanitarian agencies) or on specific groups of refugees: continuities over time, where one site is used to house multiple displaced populations, and connections with other forms of encampment and ‘immobilization’ of different mobile populations, from prisoners-of-war to holidaymakers.

One place that I’ve just learned about is a good example of this: Villawood.

Safdar Ahmed, Villawood, titleToday, Villawood is an immigration detention centre in the western suburbs of Sydney. (You can read Safdar Ahmed‘s comics reportage about it by clicking the image.) But it started life as an explosives factory, set up by the Australian government in 1941 to produce the active ingredients of Allied munitions during the second world war: this picture shows two women operating a detoluator machine—no, I don’t know either—to produce nitric acid there. Detoluator machine at Villawood

After the war, the Australian government encouraged mass migration, to offset the country’s geographic isolation and small population: these had made it feel very vulnerable during the conflict, when Japan’s rapid military expansion harshly exposed the British empire’s strategic weaknesses. Mass migration of Europeans, that is: the ‘white Australia’ policy was in full force in these decades. The government actively promoted immigration from Britain, but when this didn’t produce enough new Australians it looked elsewhere—first to the displaced persons’ camps of postwar Europe, and then to other European countries. A million people had arrived by 1955, and the policy continued for a decade or more beyond that.

On arrival, immigrants were provided with free accommodation in migrant hostels on condition that they look for work. The explosives factory at Villawood was scaled back and sold to a private company in 1946 (it continued to produce explosives and other chemicals until 2000; decontamination was only completed in 2015), and part of the site was converted into a migrant hostel using existing Nissen huts. I presume these had accommodated munitions workers, though I’m not sure. But this wasn’t uncommon—in the picture below, new immigrants are entering a Nissen hut at another former munitions factory site, at Maribyrnong in Melbourne. This picture was taken in 1965, and that migrant hostel, too, is the site of a detention centre today.Maribyrnong, Victoria, 1965

Conditions in these hostels weren’t great: at Villawood there were repeated protests in the early 1950s about crowded accommodation, poor food, and overbearing staff. (You can read about the hostel in this rather good 2008 essay [PDF] by Bethan Donnelly, then an undergrad at the University of New South Wales, which won a public history prize.) Later on it was upgraded, and photos from the 1970s show a fairly pleasant set of buildings, albeit located right next to a factory that was now producing weedkiller and insecticides.

Villawood 1970And this is where AC/DC come in. In 1963, William and Margaret Young emigrated from Glasgow with most of their eight children (one of the older boys stayed in Scotland). They lived in the hostel, where their son George met another recent arrival, a Dutch teenager who had just given up his foreign-sounding name Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg to become Harry Vanda. George and Harry played together in a successful late-60s band, The Easybeats, but as Vanda and Young they had a more lasting career as songwriters and producers for other acts. They produced the first several albums by the band that George’s younger brothers Angus and Malcolm formed in 1973: AC/DC. Angus Young, the youngest child in the family, was seven or eight when they arrived in Villawood: too old to sleep in a bassinet like this one, which was used on the site in the 1950s. But it was interesting to find out that he spent part of his childhood in a migrant hostel that was once an explosives factory, and is now a detention centre.

BassinetI’ll be learning more about Villawood this week, when I meet up with a PhD researcher in architecture here at Melbourne who’s writing her thesis about it. I may also go and see it when I’m in Sydney later this month, if I can do so without simply going to gawp at the barbed wire. But doing a bit of reading around about the site has already given me lots of new ideas—and helped me flesh out some thoughts I’d already had—about sites of detention and confinement.

Thanks to Meighen Katz, Mary Tomsic, and Savitri Taylor
for giving me pointers about the places
mentioned in this post.

Click images for sources.
There’s no permalink on the National Archives of Australia
catalogue (annoying!): the photos from Maribyrnong and Villawood
are both in series A12111, respectively items (‘control symbol’)
1/1965/22/25 and 1/1970/22/25.



Southern hemisphere tour 2017

Screen Shot 2017-08-01 at 17.06.32

Well, okay, southern hemisphere is a bit of an exaggeration.

I’m in Australia for a month-long fellowship at the University of Melbourne, where I’m being hosted by the EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges and working with Prof Joy Damousi and her team. (Joy is running a large project on the history of child refugees.) The aim of the visit is to understand Australia’s current immigration detention policy in the context of the global history of the refugee camp.

While I’m on this side of the world, I’m doing a few events, here in Melbourne and also at the end of the month in Sydney:

  • University of Melbourne history department brown bag seminar, Thu 10 Aug, 1–2pm: ‘Humans and animals in a refugee camp: Baquba, 1918–1921’ in room 553, Arts West Building, North Wing.
  • Extra date added: I’m now also doing a talk co-hosted by the EU Centre and the Australian Institute of International Affairs, ‘Grudging rescue: the history of humanitarian evacuations’, Tue 22 Aug, 6:00–7:30pm, in room 553, Arts West Building, North Wing.
  • A public lecture for the EU Centre entitled ‘Refugees in Syria, Syrian refugees: then and now’, Thu 24 Aug, 6:00–7:30pm in room 353—the interactive cinema space, apparently—also in the Arts West Building (more details here).
  • A talk on the same subject at the department of history, politics, and international relations at Macquarie University, Sydney, Tue 29 Aug, 12 noon. I’ll add venue details for this when I have them.

If you’re in Melbourne or Sydney, do come along to one of these events, or get in touch if you’d like to meet up for a chat. I’ve only been here two days and I’ve already met a number of interesting and inspiring people, including some who are involved in the excellent oral history project Behind the Wire, in which current and former detainees narrate their experiences—check it out.