Comparing quarantines: site visit to Point Nepean, Victoria

Hospital 3 and 4 crop

5 September 2013

Although the concept of quarantine was widely adopted across the nineteenth century, the process played out remarkably differently at the level of individual sites. One of the key elements of the Quarantine Project is therefore to compare the history and materiality of quarantine at various locations around the globe.

Project members have previously visited quarantine and immigration facilities at Ellis Island, New York City; Angel Island, San Francisco; and Grosse Ile, Quebec. In September 2013 a combined team of our archaeologists and historians travelled to Point Nepean at the very tip of the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Traditionally Boonwurrung country, this place was first occupied by Europeans in the 1840s for lime burning, before being commandeered by the Colony of Victoria for quarantine in 1852. Across waves of adaptation and shifting tenancy, the site progressed through several eras of quarantine administration and military occupation, until finally being consolidated into the Point Nepean National Park in 2005.

The landscape and built environment of Point Nepean differ markedly from the North Head Quarantine Station. In particular, we were struck by how flat the site is, compared with the steep cliffs and layered vegetation in Sydney. Although several buildings are of similar style and purpose to those erected around Australia in the 1910s, Point Nepean provides a remarkably intact perspective on the early phase of colonial quarantine from 1850 to 1870. Facing out to sea, the five hospital buildings which housed quarantined travellers presented an appearance of being on parade. Remarkably, when the Australian Army’s Officer Cadet School added to the site in the 1960s, one of their accommodation blocks cut directly across this neat line of sight.

Another notable aspect of the Point Nepean facilities was the relative absence of mark-making. Several dusty windows conveyed transient messages, whilst more enduring inscriptions had occasionally been scratched into wet cement. Nearly five decades of military occupation had no doubt erased other features. Indeed, the Army’s very own Vietnam War memorial wall was removed when they departed from the site in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the entire peninsula remains a patchwork of firing ranges and fortifications spanning the 1870s to the 1940s: there is no escaping the enduring overlaps between quarantine and defence. Conversely, the uniform absence of painted or carved messages sets Point Nepean apart from the rich vocabulary decorating the sandstone in Sydney.

We would especially like to thank our host from Parks Victoria, John Grinpukel, for devoting so much time to maximising our visit and elaborating the many facets of the site.