Stories from the sandstone

By Wendy Frew

Scattered around the old quarantine station at Sydney’s North Head is a vast collection of rock engravings by internees. Annie Clarke and Alison Bashford have set out to unlock the stories behind them.
Image of Annie Clark and Alison Bashford

Dr Clarke (foreground) and Professor Bashford. Credit: Ted Sealey

If you shade your eyes and look for a small wall of rock just beneath a sandstone overhang you will see the faded black characters that make up Xie Ping De’s message.

The inscription is simple and unadorned in contrast with other, more elaborate inscriptions that decorate the cliff behind the Quarantine Station wharf at Manly’s Spring Cove.

But it has a poignancy that strikes at the heart. It is early summer in 1917. Far from home and, perhaps, alone in this foreign land, Xie Ping De seems overwhelmed by a big sky and the ocean. He is afraid he will be infected by the deadly disease afflicting others on the island.

“Feeling pessimistic and despondent,” he writes on the rock. “I am not used to maintaining hygiene yet. If you asked me the feeling about the voyage, I shall persuade you never come here for pleasure.”

Like thousands of others who made the long sea journey to Australia, Xie Ping De was interned at the station to minimise the risk passengers would import deadly diseases such as smallpox and bubonic plague to Sydney. The station was first used for quarantine purposes in 1828, and at its busiest, there could be as many as eight ships moored off the beach waiting to offload passengers. The travellers would be forcibly detained until it was clear they were not infected or until they were cured of or died from the disease.

Isolated for weeks, sometimes months, on rocky, scrubby North Head, afraid, lonely, and perhaps bored, internees spent their time engraving their ships’ names or religious icons into the soft Sydney sandstone, carving large, bas-relief company logos and flags into the rock, and scratching and painting their own names and arrival dates on cliff sides and headlands.

Little is known about who made the inscriptions. The precinct around the wharf, and another area about 500 metres away, at Old Man’s Hat, are littered with inscriptions, mostly in English, but some in Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Russian. There is a Maori tiki and several Japanese flags.

"Internees spent their time engraving their ships’ names or religious icons into the soft Sydney sandstone."

A new project could soon unlock some of these secrets 177 years after the first known inscription was made. An inter-disciplinary team from the University of Sydney has embarked on a major, three-year project to research and trace the stories behind the inscriptions, and answer the question of why internees felt the need to stamp themselves onto the landscape. These personal stories point to a much broader history of Australia’s medical, migration and maritime legacy, and the global movement of people.

Dr Annie Clarke will direct the archaeological investigation of more than 1000 inscriptions dating from the 1830s to 1970s, with the help of Research Associate Ursula Frederick, while historian Professor Alison Bashford (BA ’91 PhD ’96) will direct and pursue the personal stories and the station’s medical history, with the help of Research Associate Peter Hobbins and the curator and managers at the Quarantine Station.

Image of the sandstone and inscription

Credit: Ted Sealey

The project has been funded by an $820,000 grant from the Australian Research Council. Mawland Group, which leases the site from the NSW Government for a conference centre and retreat, has committed about $1.3 million in cash and in-kind assistance to the project. “The station is an extraordinary archaeological and historical site, both because of the buildings and quarantine infrastructure, and the large number of inscriptions,” says Clarke.

“People are always scribbling things on rocks but ... I have not read of a government institution like this where there is such a concentration and such a formality of inscriptions because there are both scrawls and these incredibly formalised stone masons’ works,” she says.

Leaving a mark


There is no clue yet as to how the tradition began of leaving a mark or a message on the rocks. “We have found no references, or any diary [referring to the inscriptions] and that is one of the things we hope that, squirrelling away in the archives, we might find.”

Clarke had known about the Quarantine Station for many years but her long standing research interest in archaeology and rock art meant much of her field work had been spent in places such as Groote Eylandt and eastern Arnhem Land. One of her students landed a job as a curator at the Quarantine Station, which sparked Clarke’s interest and led to a conference and an academic paper about the inscriptions, based on data collected in 1983 by archaeologist Wendy Thorp, and new field work.

Image of sandstone inscription

Credit: Ted Sealey

Bashford is a medical historian. Research for her 2004 book Imperial Hygiene: a critical history of colonialism, nationalism and public health was the project that first took her to the Quarantine Station. Aware of the others’ work on aspects of the Station, Clarke and Bashford began talking to each other early in 2011 about collaborating on a grant application.

“Our historical team will use the information [recorded by the archaeologists] about the ships, the diseases, the people and work back through the historical records to find out which ships were there, who the people were, where they came from, how many died, what their stories were, where they went, tracing back in time and perhaps forward in time. That is why we have called this project ‘Stories from the Sandstone’,” says Bashford.

“We are using these inscriptions as a way into the social history, the medical history and the national history of Australia. “It is like a little portal into a long history of Australian immigration.”

Australia’s class and racial politics, and national policies such as the White Australia Policy, are reflected in the way internees were treated and in the very design of the station. After well-connected passengers complained of having to share accommodation with second and third class travellers, for example, the government built new First Class buildings. dedicated ‘Asiatics’ accommodation for Asian crew and passengers was built in 1902 and turn-of-the-century posters depicted Asians as disease-carrying pests.

Image of the Quarantine Station wharf, Manly

The Quarantine Station wharf at Manly's Spring Cove. Credit: Airview Online

The project team will create a sophisticated interlinked digital database that will include descriptions of the inscriptions – their condition, what type of rock they are engraved or painted on, their exact location, any iconography used, the names of people and ships, even which way an inscription is faced. Other data that will be added include shipping, migration and health records and cross-references to other collections. Using NSW State Archives and overseas records, the researchers will search for personal stories and details about the people named in the stone messages.

“Probably what we will do is drill down deeply on some of the really important inscriptions or if we are just starting to catch wind of there being something significant about a family or an individual, or a particular story then we will follow those leads,” says Bashford.

The project will also look at the station in the context of other quarantine institutions – specifically, Grosse Ile in Quebec, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and Ellis Island in New York – so it can be understood as part of a global history of migration. Bashford and Clarke say this project, for the first time, makes explicit the international connections that bind together diverse quarantine and immigration stations.

“The station is on the National Heritage list. I think down the track there is a case for World Heritage nomination for quarantine sites,” says Clarke, “not just in Australia but internationally ... there are serial heritage nominations and already some that go across national boundaries.”


The mystery of Samuel Plimsoll

Who was John Howie and why did he carve his name on two memorial messages in the sandstone at the Quarantine Station?

Among the many stories University of Sydney historians and archaeologists hope to uncover at the station is that of the crew and passengers of the Samuel Plimsoll, who arrived in Sydney from Plymouth on 11 June, 1879.

An inscription at the Station, on a rock face about three metres above the ground, commemorates the ship’s arrival. The rock has been professionally dressed and hewn to produce a plaque, on which a star and the word ‘SHIP’ is deeply etched into the stone, followed by ‘Samuel Plimsoll’ and in descending order the name of the captain, officers and the matron. It records 462 emigrants surviving the journey, and the ship’s arrival date. At the bottom is the one name spelt out in full – John Howie.

Image of the Samuel Plimsoll carving

The Samuel Plimsoll carving. Credit: Ted Sealey

Nearby, a second inscription, plainer and closer to the ground but of similar engraving technique, also bears the name John Howie, along with four other names, including Mary Howie and A. Howie but no other information.

It raises untold questions for Clarke and Bashford to solve. Is this the Scottish stone mason John Howie who sailed to Sydney with his wife Agnes, and who lost their infant son William on the journey?
Then there is the prospect that Mary may have been John’s sister.

And if it is the same John Howie, why has he not recorded his wife’s name in full or memorialised his dead son? Another puzzle relates to whether the two other people were friends or fellow Scotsmen. And why did John feel the need to create one elaborate and formal inscription, and a second much more personal one?