Essay: James Gourleyon plague archives

Australia’s Plague Archive

Australia has a long history of epidemics. In 1983, Noel Butlin went so far as to argue that colonial Australia was constituted on the consequences of epidemic. Butlin was referring to smallpox, which had catastrophic consequences when encountered on the east coast by Indigenous Australians with limited or no herd immunity. This was ‘our original aggression’. Australia’s history prior to the twentieth century is punctuated by the introduction of diseases which took a heavy toll, especially on vulnerable segments of the population. Until the years after World War Two, infectious diseases were commonplace in a way that has generally been forgotten in the sanitised and healthy twenty-first century.

Now Australia and the world encounters COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. The planet’s population has no herd immunity to this virus. While research into a vaccine proceeds at an astonishing pace, there is no vaccine available. The public health response is from the nineteenth century: strict quarantine measures, hand washing, and contact tracing of those who are infected. Luckily, twenty-first century Australia has an outstanding hospital network which includes more than 2200 ventilated ICU beds. Modelling, however, suggests that unless those nineteenth century health measures are obeyed and remain effective these ICU beds may not be sufficient for peak demand as a consequence of COVID-19 infection. If demand for ICU beds exceeds those available, Australia’s population becomes increasingly vulnerable to COVID-19, and to disease more generally.

As the nation has discovered since March, epidemics represent not only a challenge to physical health, but to emotional health as well. That this needs to be relearned illustrates how healthy Australia generally is in 2020, and how much less visible sickness and death has become as a consequence of modern health care. Children born, for instance, at the end of the nineteenth century were vulnerable to infectious disease: death registers from the time are a litany of illnesses largely avoidable today: typhoid fever, scarlet fever, enteric fever, diphtheria, and others. But using changes in infant mortality as a proxy for the nation’s health reveals underlying inequities: while Australia’s current infant mortality rate is 3.1 per 1000, the mortality for Indigenous infants is double that, at 6.2 per 1000. So while most Australians are largely insulated from avoidable health outcomes, and the emotional challenges they bring, the impact of disease – both physical and emotional – is not uniform.

Australia is experiencing a sudden vulnerability as we reckon with the emotional impact of infectious disease. To speak of the nation facing a particular or singular emotional challenge with COVID-19 is not quite right. Epidemics prompt a multitude of emotions. On public display so far in response to COVID-19 have been anger, anxiety, confusion, panic and grief – as well as smug complacency. This is not to preclude the possibility of positive emotional consequences as well: COVID-19 has produced emotional responses of care, generosity, solidarity and ingenuity. Nor can we assume that positive and negative responses are spread evenly across the nation. Instead we must acknowledge that some people will be experiencing more significant and severe outcomes than others.

There are historical contexts to help us think through the COVID-19 epidemic. These histories contradict the often-repeated claim that the present pandemic is unprecedented. This essay looks at one such outbreak of disease in Australia’s past so as to identify precedents – emotional and otherwise – to COVID-19. The disease in this instance is bubonic plague, which occurred throughout Australia, but especially on the east coast, between 1900 and 1908. The plague outbreak was relatively mild: 1215 individuals were reported as infected, and 467 of those died. Infection numbers were relatively low, but the mortality rate was very high. While estimates of the COVID-19 mortality rate range between 1 per cent and 4 per cent, the mortality rate for bubonic plague in Australia was more than 38 per cent.

The first confirmed case of bubonic plague was reported on 15 January 1900. A man referred to as ‘W. Eppstein’ had absconded from the ship ‘Formosa’ at Port Adelaide and taken ill. He claimed to have been ‘lying ill under a tree at Gawler for a fortnight without food before he was sent to Adelaide’. He was admitted to hospital on 1 January, and died less than two weeks later. The plague spread, with the most significant outbreaks occurring in Sydney in 1900, and in Sydney and Brisbane in 1902, during the epidemic’s ‘second wave’. The intensity of plague varied with the seasons. Infections rose with the warmer weather of mid-summer and diminished in mid-winter. By 1909, the plague’s action in Australia had virtually ceased, although there were flare-ups in the 1920s.

Epidemics produce extensive archives. The public health archive is the official repository, and Australia’s colonial inheritance of a public health bureaucracy, developed from the eighteenth-century European model, is voluminous in detail. As Foucault and others have observed, this archive is constituted in a particularly unemotional way and is predisposed to surveillance and control. It is also structurally fallible, especially in its blindness to the needs of the disempowered and disadvantaged. Despite being built up from information pertaining to individuals, the official archive presents a ‘population view’. It takes control of experiences that are intimate, emotional and personal, reducing them to pieces of data in an overarching narrative.

These stories are there in the official archive, but also exist in variety of other archives: letters, diaries, news reports and literature. The plague archive that interests me most combines the factual and the fictional, the historical and the contemporary. Reading the stories of Australia’s plague outbreak gives us insight into the emotional experience of an epidemic. Further, reading the plague archive in the contemporary moment shows that the emotional consequences of an epidemic do not stop with the abeyance of the disease. The impact of the epidemic continues, and is reworked and understood in new ways as the archive is reread.

This essay is about the emotional diversity – and often the emotional mundanity – of epidemics. The experiential reality of COVID-19 for many is characterised by inaction, frustration, boredom. This is a reality that the public health archive is not designed to record. Because disease archives are often oriented by a public health viewpoint which understands the epidemic as a catastrophic event, they overlook the everyday emotional realities that exist alongside illness, death, and grief. The alternate archive brings these emotions to our attention, and in doing so facilitates a better understanding of the COVID-19 experience.

Source One: ‘Register of Cases of Bubonic Plague, 1900-1908’. Image courtesy of the New South Wales State Archives, NSW State Archives and Records.

Governments in Australia adopted standard public health measures to address the plague outbreak. New South Wales, the state with the most virulent outbreak, adopted the most systematically bureaucratic response. All infections and deaths were reported to the Board of Health, which assembled all relevant information into a two-foot tall ‘Register of Cases’. The Register is now held at the NSW State Archives. It is a massive book, more than ten centimetres thick, and clearly capable of documenting a more severe epidemic than that which eventuated. The plague entries, documented chronologically and alphabetically, take up less than a third of the book, with three different writers’ hands entering the infections from 1900 to 1908. During the outbreak, there was significant concern around stigmatisation of those infected, so the Register was subject to a 110-year embargo on the publication of specific data. In 2019, at the expiry of the embargo, this digitised and searchable record was proudly unveiled.

This bureaucratic infrastructure, which collates information and uses it to inform public health responses, remains effectively the same today. If a case of bubonic plague is diagnosed in New South Wales, the treating physician is required to urgently notify the Public Health Unit by telephone, and complete a Communicable Diseases Notification. This information is then entered into a database, the Notifiable Conditions Information Management System, where it is noted in NSW’s Communicable Diseases Weekly Report, used to inform public health responses. It is then passed on to the World Health Organisation, where the information becomes part of the Global Alert and Response mechanism.

Today, state governments have established reporting procedures for COVID-19 which are independent of other infectious disease reporting, but the practice and consequences are comparable The COVID-19 testing regime reports upward, aggregating positive and negative results. This information is reported daily, documenting total infections, new infections, number of tests and total deaths. In contrast, of course, to 1900, is the distribution of these reports. Rather than once- or twice-daily reporting in newspapers, this information is reported as it appears. As with the 110-year embargo placed upon the NSW Plague Register, there remains at least an ostensible institutional sensitivity to the emotional consequences of COVID-19. Infection and death data is reported anonymously; cases are identified only by local government area and postcode. While contemporary media reporting has been generally cautious about identifying infected individuals, this was not the case when the Courier Mail scapegoated two young women of colour for their breaching of COVID-19 travel restrictions in July. The paper named and published a photograph of both women under the front-page headline ‘ENEMIES OF THE STATE’. This racist scapegoating, perhaps premised on the anxiety of infection, has its own precedents in Australia’s plague archive.

It is not only the Murdoch tabloids that use disease as a mask for other ends. In assessing the public health apparatus of record-keeping in seventeenth century France (now transformed terminologically to ‘contact tracing’ and technologically via its roll-out in app form), Michel Foucault writes: ‘the plague gave rise to disciplinary projects … those sick of the plague were caught up in a meticulous tactical partitioning.’ In his lectures to the Collège de France, Foucault extended this reasoning:

the plague is … the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full. Plague is the moment when the spatial partitioning and subdivision of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear. The moment of the plague is one of an exhaustive sectioning of the population by political power, the capillary ramifications of which constantly reach the grain of individuals themselves, their time, habitat, localization, and bodies.

Foucault showed how an epidemic offered an opportunity for governmental control to be extended and embedded in society. This is not to argue, for instance, against the federal government’s COVIDsafe app per se. Rather, it is to point out that the app – and public health measures generally – are often inclined to control and surveillance, often with reasonable justification. But this inclination needs to be acknowledged and its implications better understood. In this vein, there are good reasons why the public health bureaucracy is conditioned to approach its data unemotionally. This remains the case whether the data is being recorded in a leather-bound ledger or via an app. But it is important to resist the narrative that this data is inherently – or even that it could ever be – emotionless. Looking at the Register is an emotional experience; the infections and deaths it records reveal often confronting narratives that it takes little effort to reconstruct.

The first page of chronological records reveals the case of the Dovey family, five of whom were among the first twenty infections recorded in New South Wales in 1900: James Dovey (41) and four of the family’s children, Fred (2), Harry (5), Reginald (7) and Elsie (9). Fred is listed as infected on 8 March 1900, and as dead the next day. Elsie and Harry are listed as infected on 11 March; both were discharged a month later on 13 April. Reginald is noted as infected on 13 March and his father the following day. Reginald convalesces until he is discharged on 24 April, his father’s infection continuing for almost two months until his discharge on 12 May.

The rapid onrush of the plague and its long-term consequences for this one family makes inescapable the experience of fear, dislocation and trauma. But despite the sympathy the Doveys might arouse, they were treated as scapegoats by at least one newspaper of the day, which lambasted them as foolish because the children had played in the Moore Park Tip. The Dovey’s socio-economic status rendered their trauma and grief available for pillory. While the Courier Mail story is not exactly the same, the fact that it was two women of colour who were scapegoated when others were not tells us that often the emotions of epidemic are not the same for all.

The emotional consequences of the plague extend beyond those who were infected and those who died. The scale of the Sydney outbreak prompted the New South Wales government to significant physical action. Large sections of The Rocks – home to working class populations – faced fierce quarantine measures, while wooden dwellings (including homes) in Miller’s Point, Pyrmont and elsewhere were burnt, in an attempt to eliminate the threat. As a consequence of which, Sydney was transformed.

Source Two: William Dodgson Cockton, Diary of a Wharf During Quarantine. Image courtesy of the Vaughan Evans Library, Australian National Maritime Museum.

The plague infection in Sydney was particularly concentrated in Darling Harbour. Sydney’s wharves were often decrepit structures, and a breeding ground for rats, the major vector of the disease. William Dodgson Cockton’s Diary of a Wharf During Quarantine, four foolscap pages held in the Vaughan Evans Library of the Australian National Maritime Museum, documents the realities of New South Wales’s abrupt application of quarantine and other public health measures. Yet Cockton expresses no significant negative emotions. Instead, his Diary is a portrait of life-as-usual despite quarantine, characterised by patience in the face of quarantine’s imposition and simple efforts to test the extent of its application. Cockton’s diary echoes the sometimes muted response to the application of lockdown in New South Wales and around Australia during COVID-19. Life goes on, even when the right to movement and association is curtailed.

Cockton was British by birth and worked on steamers travelling between England and Australia. By 1900, but probably much before, he had settled in Sydney with his wife and family, and traded sea-faring for the wharves of Pyrmont. His quarantine Diary commences on 23 March 1900, when Sydney had thirty plague infections and eleven deaths. On that Friday, ship movements were rapidly curtailed; quarantine was suddenly in force. Boats were refused access to the wharf and everything was ‘in a state of confusion’.

Despite this confusion, life appears to proceed relatively normally for Cockton, who leaves the wharves for home at 10:15pm:

my Things over my Arm & was outside the Gate next to the Constable (White) when Capt. Brown told me I would be quarentened & that the man Tenffeith, who was watching the S.S. ‘Flinders’ would stop with me & take it in turn’s watching. (very sorry I could not get home) for thing’s did not look very cheerful.

There is a silver lining to even this unhappy turn of events: meals are to be provided to wharf workers during the period of quarantine (although even this consolation was short-lived: within a week the meals have degenerated – Cockton describes them as ‘dreadful & disgusting’ – and the men were seeking a change). By Sunday, Cockton is still confined to wharf premises (he and his colleagues were habitually allowed Sundays off) and the wharf is deserted except for ‘those on duty. Policemen, Watchmen etc’. Later that Sunday, ‘four health officers visited the Wharf and had a good look round making suggestions what might to be done & what they would do’. Cockton’s surprise and interest is obvious, and is made the more relevant by his considerable experience in matters maritime. By 1900, he had more than two decades’ experience around boats and wharves. He concludes his diary entries for Sunday with the statement: ‘I may say that this Sabbath Day will be a Memorable one to me.’

On Monday, Cockton and his colleagues are inoculated. The new week brings action: while the Pyrmont wharves are still inactive due to quarantine, Cockton can see plague-related activity all around:

They are also pulling out of the houses in Sussex Street all rubbish & burning every thing they can. There are 4 big Fires between Margaret & Erskine Streets.

In spite of the quarantine, there is some solace: Cockton’s dog, Rover, finds his way to his master at the wharf, and later his wife Emma – they had celebrated their silver wedding anniversary on 29 July 1897, as advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald – provides him ‘some clean thing’s,’ a sure relief. Public health measures conducted by city and colony government continue around him:

The Health Department have had there men working in the Grafton Yard up till dinner time, pulling down Water Closet’s, breaking up Boxes, & all Kinds of Wood work ready for burning they have also removed all the Iron Work & Chains in the lower part of the Yard.

It is not until Thursday that Cockton is allowed back to work, and activity at the Pyrmont Wharves recommences, with the washing down of the S.S. ‘Octopus’. Quarantine is still enforced, although this is partially circumvented by ‘a visit from my Soninlaw in a Boat, in which were 3 of the children’. The Board of Health and Fire Services arrange for the washing down of the Wharves, which allows Cockton and colleagues to start real work again. After their week-long lockdown, work commences in earnest at the beginning of April: wharves in the area are being barricaded and some cargo is able to be discharged, although it is burnt for safety’s sake.

Cockton’s primary job during this period is to render the Pyrmont Wharves compliant with the 1900 Darling Harbour Wharves Resumption Act, especially the expectation that wharves be made ‘rat proof’. Work on the wharves at Pyrmont takes place over a month of considerable effort:

since they commenced I here they have taken over 900 Ton’s of Dirt out of this place alone. The Health dept. are at work cleaning out the joists & filing in with Stone’s which are carted to the wharf.

There is ongoing consternation and gossip about the economic consequences of the quarantine: ‘There as been lots of rumors about the Ships coming back to the Wharf’s but there is no sign’s of them coming back at present.’ In all, this period heralds a significant transformation of this part of Sydney, and its commercial shipping industry.

Cockton’s diary concludes on 14 May, with dredging finished, whitewashing of wharves almost complete, and some cargo being received on wharves. His diary gives a great sense of his quarantine providing seclusion from the threat of the plague. As part of a working party tasked with acting upon the threat of plague, Cockton is able to act, rather than simply to wait in fear of potential infection. As we shall see, those with more limited agency faced greater anxiety in the face of the plague outbreak.

Source Three: Reports of the Chief Medical Officer (J. Ashburton Thompson), Outbreak of Plague at Sydney 19001909. Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales.

J. Ashburton Thompson was the President of the New South Wales Board of Health during the plague outbreak, and a driver of public health reform in New South Wales and Australia. As late as the mid-1880s, he was the only trained epidemiologist in the colonies. Thompson wrote several reports on the outbreaks of plague in New South Wales. These document public anxiety about the plague and the intensification of public health bureaucracy as a response to this emotion. They are also notable for their crude candour: they do not omit embarrassing details of bureaucratic failure, nor do they resile from viewing the plague through an overtly racist prism, with Thompson’s plague reports assuming, for instance, ‘that the Chinese (and other coloured races) always resist this disease very much less successfully than do the whites’. Despite their official form and unemotional tone, Thompson’s reports communicate some of the emotional consequences of the plague simply because of their fidelity to detail.

Considering the relatively small size of the plague outbreak in Sydney, this emotional impact was consistently more about fear of the disease than the illness and deaths it caused. For instance, Thompson assesses public perception of government inaction as transforming the public’s anxiety into outright panic. ‘Popular excitement,’ he writes, ‘had gradually increased until it had reached a pitch which threatened further serious interference with the Department’s practical management of the epidemic.’ New South Wales responded by forming a Special Plague Committee, so as to ‘steady the popular mind and afford the Department the kind of support in execution of its difficult and anxious duties’. Thompson’s 1900 report makes it clear that controlling the public’s emotions was an integral task for the government’s management of the epidemic.

Outbreak of Plague at Sydney 1900 documents particular moments of panic focused upon access to a vaccine. In 1900, Australia did not have the capacity to manufacture a vaccine. Instead, an arrangement was made for France to provide two batches of an ‘anti-Plague serum’ from Noumea. The French doses didn’t arrive quickly, noted by Thompson’s report in the requisite bureaucratic tone: ‘Unfortunately, neither arrived until the epidemic had begun to show the signs which betoken the period of decline; nevertheless, the public were reassured at hearing that a specific method of treating the disease had become available.’

Public reassurance apparently only went so far. As plans for distributing the vaccine for health workers and those living or working in areas of significant infection were put together, public patience failed. On 21 March – two days before Cockton’s quarantine diary commences –public desire for the vaccine erupted. A crowd had gathered outside the Board of Health building in Macquarie Street:

the public, without any warning, suddenly arrived in very great numbers, and practically took possession of the building; they invaded the upper part of it, packing the staircases almost beyond possibility of movement, and at risk of a disastrous accident. The building itself was, moreover, unapproachable through the large crowd outside of it, which desperately resisted displacement from positions of advantage they had gained near the entrances.

The next day provided no relief from the panic:

use of the Exhibition Building was granted by the City Council for inoculation purposes. Strenuous efforts were made to restrict public inoculation to those persons who either inhabited the infected area or were obliged to pass the day in it. The medical profession naturally desired that supplies of prophylactic should be placed at its disposal […] but a portion of the general public were determined to be inoculated at all hazards, though they stood in no known danger of contracting the disease, and very much of the first consignment consequently was wasted.

These fear-induced riots make for sombre reading in 2020. Human trials for a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine are proceeding. If a vaccine is successfully developed, global distribution will present a significant challenge, and worldwide consensus will be needed for the manufacture and distribution of a vaccine to be conducted equitably and affordably. Will Australia be able to distribute a vaccine equitably? Will a vaccine be distributed equitably around the globe? Nationalism in Australia and around the world suggests a ‘people’s vaccine’ may be difficult to secure.

Ian Townsend’s 2005 novel Affection imaginatively documents the affective experience of plague. It combines official and unofficial plague archives and develops a contemporary view, addressing scapegoating, public health procedures and quarantine practices, and the emotional strain caused by epidemics along the way. The novel is set in Townsville during its 1900 plague outbreak and is narrated from the viewpoint of a historical figure, municipal health officer Dr Linford Row.

Affection documents the period in which 37 individuals were infected and nine died. The novel traces the plague’s entrance into Townsville, the medical authorities’ attempts to contain it, and the public’s resistance to this bureaucracy. It depicts the growth of the outbreak to concerning levels (and the public and governmental anxiety this prompts), before the plague’s sudden departure, as if all the public health measures in the world had no real control over the outbreak.

The inequities of public health’s racial failures are probed throughout Affection. In considering race and the plague, Affection explores how anxiety and panic, which often manifest as racism, are exacerbated by the societal stress of the plague outbreak. In this sense, the conflict in the novel between public health and racial politics is central. Doctors and government figures repeatedly clash over quarantine practices. The primary agitator is a historical figure, Anderson Dawson, a Queensland premier pre-Federation, and a Queensland Labor senator in the first Commonwealth Parliament. In terms that are echoed in current debates, Dawson advocates for the economy to be prioritised over public health. He is agitating for the building of a railway line to the gold-mining centre of Charters Towers, which will inaugurate a ‘new Australian nation’. The economic benefits are not for all, of course. The construction is intended to ‘employ hundreds of white men’.

Dawson’s ally in this is the Townville mayor, A. E. McCreedy. McCreedy dismisses the plague threat, arguing

Northern stock are tough and it’s the Chinaman and kanaka who’ll cop it. They’re the ones we need to damn well quarantine.

In 2020, debate in Australia continues regarding an ‘economic calculus’ which seeks to balance the public health and economic consequences of the disease. Those on the side of lessening public health measures so as to encourage the economy appear unwilling to acknowledge the disproportionate impact this will have on various disadvantaged groups, especially racial minorities.

The medical authorities in Affection are not great defenders of equality either. One doctor assesses the population of Townsville as ‘[s]eventeen thousand … not counting blacks, of course’. Dr Jefferis Turner, the implacably unemotional epidemic expert, is not immune from the racist discourses of the time. While Turner does not voice racist sentiments, he does develop ‘a set against Flinders-lane’ (the ‘Chinatown’ of Townsville) and ‘decide[s] to act’, ordering the area’s ‘disinfecting’ in the name of public health. Elsewhere, Flinders-lane is described as ‘seeth[ing] with slinky Chinamen who ran opium and gambling dens, sly grog shops and prostitutes’. As Flinders-lane is subject to the long arm of the public health bureaucracy, Row acknowledges the uninformed perceptions that governed people’s thinking:

It has been relatively easy to get support for that morning’s raid on Chinatown, simply because it confirmed what many people believed about the plague – that is, if they believed in the plague at all. The consensus seemed to be that it was incubated by Chinamen. And ‘Chinamen’ meant anyone with Asian features. In Townsville, many Chinamen were actually Japanese.

Opinion was divided over how the plague should be contained.


But no one opposed ransacking Chinatown.

Affection documents a worldview common around Australia during the plague outbreak. This worldview existed in Townsville in 1900 and is in action today. Racism – especially directed at those perceived as of Chinese heritage – is again on the rise.

Affection offers a close examination of the function of this racism, and the emotions that are its triggers. In the novel, the majority resist public health measures. This resistance culminates in a siege triggered by the people’s determination to support a father refusing to allow his son to be removed to the plague hospital. The anxiety that public health measures induce in the public is clearly articulated by the mayor when he insists: ‘You know what people fear more than death, don’t you. Eh? Being separated from their loved ones.’

This is the culminating emblem of the novel: emotions that trump public health measures. Indeed, Row acknowledges the emotional conflict produced by the plague when he assesses the atmosphere in the town at the point of the siege:

Public opinion, though, was now as firmly against us as if we’d brought the plague … ourselves, and given the town nothing but fear and threats and incarceration. Which, of course, was partly true.

The febrile atmosphere in Townsville at the novel’s denouement is a doubling of contagion. It is as if the plague and the emotions it causes are twin threats, similarly contagious. Affection’s particular insight is to grasp that the public health bureaucracy is the inescapable target of this emotion. Here the novel’s title is important: ‘affection’ possesses two apparently contradictory meanings: the novel’s epigraph defines ‘affection’ as ‘[k]ind feeling; love; attachment’ and secondly as ‘a morbid or abnormal state of body or mind; malady’. The novel sees the impact of plague in two intertwined impacts: on the body, and on the emotions. While the bodily consequences are attended to by the medical authorities, the emotional consequences are unattended. As a consequence they flair up, the epidemic of unruly emotions becoming more serious than the plague itself.

Affection also emphasises the horror plague can cause. In doing so, it suggests that disease, and particularly an epidemic, takes society back in time, making society vulnerable to the outpourings of emotion – panic, scapegoating – which it is too easy to believe we are indemnified against in the twenty-first century. As Row insists, epidemic is a conflict between ‘modern medicine’ and the ‘ancient … monsters’:

You may think I’m exaggerating. It’s true, modern medicine allows me to dispassionately describe a disease by its cause, effect and treatment, as if I could pin it to a cork board to study and say, ‘Yes, that’s it’ and move on. But medicine, if it is a science, can’t describe the horror of a bewildered child dying in agony of, say, diphtheria or whooping cough or one of any number of diseases. The truth is that these ancient diseases are monsters, more real and terrible than any dragon or devil or creation of Mary Shelley.

The monstrous element of disease is the emotions it produces. Townsend suggests there is an emotional element to disease which cannot be broken down by modern medicine, and that we in the twenty-first century remain just as vulnerable as in the Australian plague archive of the twentieth century.

As Affection dramatises, the group blamed for the 1900 plague outbreak was a loosely affiliated community of Asian immigrants labelled as ‘Chinese’. Anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Australia, likely first emerging during the gold rushes of the 1850s. Anti-Chinese sentiment also had a history of being linked to epidemics: during Sydney’s 1881-82 smallpox epidemic, recent Chinese immigrants were scapegoated. Individuals were attacked, businesses vandalised, and Chinese ships and their passengers (and ships travelling from Chinese ports) were quarantined.

Chinese Language public health notice, from Chinese-Australian Herald. Image courtesy of City of Sydney Archives.

In June 1900, the Home Secretary’s Office in Brisbane assembled a ‘circular’ in classical Chinese which it ‘proposed to distribute among the Chinese in this Colony [Queensland] in view of the outbreak of Bubonic Plague’. The message was printed on page three of the 21 July 1900 edition of the Chinese Australian Herald. This text illustrates that alongside anti-Chinese sentiment and scapegoating, there were also thoughtful attempts to engage and support the community during the plague. The circular provides advice which communicates government concern: ‘The danger is very great. We therefore advise you all to do the best you can to extinguish the rats – morning or night. As though you are carrying a war against them.’ Despite the good intentions with which the circular is presented, it is unclear how effective it might have been. The classical Chinese used might have mitigated against its readability, as would have lower rates of literacy more broadly. The structural challenges Australia faces around these issues have been reiterated in 2020, with a variety of COVID-19 notices in languages other than English mistranslated or nonsensical.

While the advice does not often depart from the conventional, the anxiety of the time is clear:

Only a few months back, hundreds of thousands of people died in India. It is not because they are not absolutely clean and neither by being thickly populated. It is because their buildings are so constructed that the rats have easy access thereto therefore they are liable to bring disease from one end of the town to the other. We therefore warn you to prevent this.

This anxiety is understandable: the circular’s assertion of ‘hundreds of thousands’ of deaths appears hyperbolic but is historically accurate. The language employed – related here in Sun Johnson’s (the Chinese Australian Herald’s owner) translation – is restrained, its references to cleanliness and population indicative of a rejection of anti-Asian racism of the time. Whatever the reader’s interpretation, the fact that government departments were investing in foreign language public health warnings so as to contact the Chinese Australian community indicates an acknowledgment of the necessity of ensuring the health of all NSW residents.

Details in the City of Sydney archive reveal another detail about this source which runs askant to narratives of Chinese scapegoating. Sun Johnson wrote to the Health and Recreation Committee of the City of Sydney in March 1902, proposing the circular be reprinted ‘because the majority of the Chinese residents are not acquainted with the general English language and a circular printed in their own language will appeal directly to them and will greatly facilitate the work of your inspectors’. Johnson approaches the epidemic entrepreneurially, just as many others did, seeking to make some money off the government, and perhaps even utilising anti-Chinese sentiment to his own financial benefit along the way. While the City decided not to invest in further circulars, this source presents an alternative narrative to the endemic racism and unthinking scapegoating which colours the public and governmental response to Australia’s plague outbreak.

Australia’s plague archive reveals the diversity of emotions Australians experienced during the epidemic. Work is underway – beyond the official public health archives – to document the emotional consequences of COVID-19 in Australia. These initiatives include the State Library of New South Wales’s COVID-19 Collecting Drive, part of the its ‘Social Media Archive’, which includes a live ‘emotion clock’ and ‘The Diary Files’. The State Library of Victoria’s ‘Memory Bank’ is a ‘collective isolation project’; Sydney’s Inner West Council’s has ‘Telling Your Stories – Inner West COVID-19’; and there is Peter Hobbins’s twitter #covidstreetarchive. It will take some time for the emotional outlines of Australia’s response to COVID-19 to crystallise, but archives, official and otherwise, are already being established to do so.

Thanks for the assistance provided by archivists and librarians at the Australian National Maritime Museum, the City of Sydney, the NSW State Archives and Records, and the State Library of NSW, in particular the collegial guidance provided by Myffanwy Bryant, Australian National Maritime Museum and Sarah O’Neill, City of Sydney.

Works Cited

‘City of Sydney Town Clerk Correspondence: Chinese-Australian Herald re Issuing Circular in Chinese re Plague,’ 2 April 1902, 1902/1117. Held at the City of Sydney Archives.

‘Register of Cases of Bubonic Plague, 1900-1908,’ NRS-591, Held by NSW State Archives and Records.

Noel Butlin. Our Original Aggression. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

William Dodgson Cockton, Diary of a Wharf During Quarantine, MS MAL (254781), 1900. Held by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Peter Curson and Kevin McCracken. Plague in Sydney: The Anatomy of an Epidemic. Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1989.

Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. Edited by Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomoni, Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador, 2003.

— Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Natalie Harkin, ‘The Poetics of (Re)Mapping Archives: Memory in the Blood.’ JASAL 14, no. 3 (2014): 1-14.

(J. Ashburton Thomson), Report of the Chief Medical Officer, Outbreak of Plague at Sydney 1900.

Ian Townsend, Affection. Sydney: HarperCollins, 2005.

David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999.

Greg Watters, ‘Contaminated by China.’ Australia’s Asia: From Yellow Peril to Asian Century. Edited by David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska. Crawley: University of Western Australia Publishing, 2012: 27-49.