Students share their skills

22 February2016

Protest may have been by crew memver from the Changte

Chinese crew's inscription - SS Changte

In late 2015, the Quarantine Project was delighted to provide a ‘home base’ for a series of research projects undertaken by final-year history students from the University of Sydney. Completing their undergraduate degrees via a subject entitled ‘History beyond the classroom’, each of the five students accomplished just that. Going beyond the usual student essays or class presentations, our ‘Q team’ all found effective ways to share their insights into quarantine history with a wider audience.

Finding herself drawn to the many Chinese inscriptions at North Head, Rebecca Sum began researching several messages, especially carvings related to the quarantine of the trading vessels Taiyuan in 1923 and Changte in 1930. Because both of these inscriptions were anonymous, she explored the history of each vessel and the likely makeup of its crew. A further inscription that Rebecca investigated, relating to the detention of Hong Kong student Mak Shing, proved timely: it seems that the graffito lamenting his capture and impending deportation may now be lost forever. Providing information sheets for the Q Station’s history guides, Rebecca became a guide herself when the Chinese Australian Historical Society visited the site on 21 November 2015, with several of her stories forthcoming in their regular newsletter.

Vietnamese crew on French ship Pierre Lot (1940)

French ship with Vietnamese crew

A different series of Asian stories arose from the work of Stephanie Barahona, who prepared a detailed research guide and a public talk on Operation Babylift. Launched in April 1975, just as the South Vietnamese city of Saigon fell to northern communist forces, Operation Babylift saw thousands of children airlifted ahead of the defeat.

While most of the children were relocated to the United States, a sizeable group also arrived in Australia, where many were temporarily accommodated at the Quarantine Station.

Working from a range of official sources and personal recollections, including those created by Operation Babylift survivors, Stephanie related some of their stories of dislocation and trauma, as well as adjustment and reunion.


Residents awaiting evacuation*

Along the theme of evacuation, Miguel Alzona drew upon a hastily scratched inscription at the Q Station referring to Cyclone Tracy, which largely destroyed the city of Darwin on Christmas Day 1974.

Nearly 40,000 people – almost 80% of the city’s population – were evacuated in the aftermath, while housing and essential services were restored. Approximately 200 of the refugees were temporarily housed at North Head.

Arriving during the school holidays, they received donations and personal care from generous local residents who went on to assist the Operation Babylift evacuees a few months later. Drawing upon both the quarantine archives and the Qantas Heritage Collection, Miguel prepared a research guide for the Q Station’s curatorial team and gave a lively public talk.


Joseph Amblers Headstone

Starting from a less happy outcome, Jacob Mark commenced his research with a lonely headstone that has recently been relocated in the Quarantine Station’s Second Burial Ground. This cemetery opened in 1853, and within a year it became the permanent home for Joseph Ambler, an English immigrant arriving with his family on the ship Araminta.

Information on Joseph’s life, and the fate of his wife and child, proved difficult to come by, but Jacob persevered with telling the wider story of immigration to the Australian colonies during the Gold Rush years. In a sad but meaningful way, he noted, the very absence of documents to Joseph’s long-forgotten life makes his headstone – left lonely in the bush since the cemetery closed in 1881 – even more meaningful.

John Dawson

Entry from John Dawson's journal

Finally, hailing back to the very first formal detention after North Head was gazetted as a Quarantine Ground, Molly Clarke explored the story of John Dawson on the barque Canton. Quarantined in 1835, this ship arrived bearing nearly 200 single women to help bolster the female population of New South Wales. Sailing with his large family on the same vessel, 16-year-old John Dawson kept a daily journal which is now held in the State Library of New South Wales.

Molly prepared a transcript of this diary so that future researchers will be able to more easily read John’s story. Upon arrival, John also carved a detailed inscription in a sandstone outcrop which may have marked the very beginning of the North Head inscription tradition. Meanwhile – as Molly reported – John himself went on to a long and successful life as a Sydney solicitor.

Over the weekend of 21–22 November 2015, all five students shared their research stories via a tour at the Q Station and as part of a special session hosted within the regular monthly talks programme. Many thanks to all of them for their enthusiasm, detailed research and thoughtful presentations!

* Image courtesy Qantas Heritage Collection