I have a new post up on RefugeeHistory.org, 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.)
From 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.
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).
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).
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.