History and Historicity at the Quarantine Station

18 July 2014

Quarantine wharf area - compare with the 1900 photo in the Australian Town and Country Journal.jpg

Quarantine wharf area - compare with the 1900 photo in the Australian Town and Country Journal

One often overlooked aspect of Sydney's Quarantine Station is its early recognition as a historic site in its own right. This sense of historicity is reflected both in the documentary record and in the ways that the inscriptions at North Head relate to their context.

As early as the 1880s, Sydney residents and visitors alike began to view traces of the early era of colonisation with nostalgic eyes. Postcards and photographic prints focused on relics such as the overblown memorial to the completion of a road carved into the sandstone at Mrs Macquarie's Chair. Yet even in his 1847 painting for Savage Life and Scenes in Australia and New Zealand, George French Angas portrayed the quarantine burial ground in a semi-derelict state. Although most of the graves were less than a decade old, their neglect evinced the heady rush and hopes of the 1830s before immigration - and hence quarantines - fell calamitously with the economic downturn of the 1840s.

By the close of the nineteenth century, as the city prepared to ward off the bubonic plague in 1900, the Australian Town and Country Journal portrayed the quarantine station as "Sydney’s first line of defence",comparing it with the "ingenious devices of modern military science" protecting Sydney Harbour from naval attack. But the accompanying photographs told a different story - of a landscape richly carved over decades by those detained at North Head.

The RMS Aorangi is one of several inscriptions updated when the ship returned again.jpg

The RMS Aorangi is one of several inscriptions updated when the ship returned to quarantine

Unlike the site’s three cemeteries, this was a living history in which messages from new arrivals crowded around - but rarely overlapped - marks left by previous visitors. Landing in quarantine from the SS Chingtu in 1901, fresh from service at the Boxer Rebellion in China, Victorian naval volunteer Arthur Livingstone explored the sandstone cliffs and admired the numerous inscriptions which were "painted in all different colours nicely carved & look very well". Even as he remarked in his diary that "the Chingtu has been there twice preveious [sic] to this one", his comrades were busy carving a new monument to the ship's third internment. Other return visits were marked by adding a date to an existing inscription, such as the SS Taiyuan - quarantined in 1894 and again in 1912, or the RMS Aorangi in 1930 and 1935.

Whether in French, Arabic, Chinese or English, each of these monuments was understood to have earned its rightful place at this historic site. Indeed, in 1905 a monument was purposely erected to mark the 50th anniversary of the quarantine of the ship Constitution in May 1855. Visited irregularly thereafter, by the 1930s this obelisk had itself become a destination for those seeking a connection with the city’s fading maritime past. By this time, the permanent staff quartered at North Head had begun to tend to the inscriptions, trimming back vegetation and repairing or repainting them to keep this sense of continuity fresh.

One of several detailed inscriptions marking the quarantine of the Nikko Maru in 1916.jpg

One of several detailed inscriptions marking the quarantine of the SS Nikko Maru in 1916

Even as the final inscriptions were being added to the assemblage in the 1970s, the Australian Women's Weekly commissioned a photo essay on the "Historic graffiti at quarantine station", decrying the erosion and vandalism that threatened its survival. Earlier that decade, station staff had encouraged quarantined Japanese translator Masako Endō to locate the inscriptions recording the visits of the Yawata Maru (1912), Nikko Maru (1916) and Ishikari Maru (1921). While gazing upon these inscriptions inspired Endō to research the history of Japanese-Australian trade relations, what touched her most was a Chinese poem carved on a "manhole cover", which she found "pregnant with the feelings of people as being foreigners who were bound for detention in … quarantine".