Exhibit B: Early Responses

5 28 1881 The Herald.PNG

"The Chinese and Small-pox." Herald, May 28, 1881.

This editorial that featured in The Herald is quite dramatic in its condemnation of Chinese immigrants. Speaking in apocalyptic terms, it declares that after “centuries of an existence of privation and dirt” the Chinese have become “almost impervious to diseases which sweep away Europeans.” Although an obviously misinformed claim, this hints at two major underlying beliefs:

Firstly, the article exemplifies the widely held notion that the Chinese were more susceptible to disease due to their “filthy habits of life.” Goldsmid argues that these conceptions stem from the gold rushes, when smallpox and leprosy were supposedly common in the Chinese shanty towns near Ballarat.¹ In this respect, it must be noted that the Chinese quarters in Sydney were frequently unsanitary and overcrowded. The epidemic was especially concentrated in five localities: Pyrmont's northern tip, a stretch of Sussex Street, an area spanning between Macquarie Street South to Surry Hills, lower Woolloomooloo, and the industrial suburb Alexandria-Waterloo.² These areas - in which 66 per cent of all cases occurred - housed some of the city’s poorest residents, including Chinese immigrants. Poverty and overcrowding in dilapidated tenements and boarding houses were rife, with the unhygienic conditions - communal water sources, for example - contributing significantly to the spread of smallpox. Peter Curson argues that “the authorities were undoubtedly assisted by the fact” that the disease was so heavily concentrated in these disadvantaged areas.³ This allowed them to be far more rigorous and ruthless in the measures they took to quell the disease. Entire streets were fumigated and cleansed, whilst dilapidated buildings were demolished. Meanwhile, the Chinese were subject to particularly harsh treatment. For example, Won Ping’s house and outbuildings were burnt to the ground.⁴ Again, this stemmed from myths concerning the Chinese's greater susceptibility to disease, which proliferated in part due to press articles like this one. 

Secondly, the article hints at the recent popularisation of Social Darwinism as a means of justifying racist political and social positions. By 1881, the notion that the ‘white race’ was intrinsically superior to all others was commonplace in European socio-political discourse. As Sir Henry Parkes said in support of the Chinese Restriction and Regulation Act 1888, “this young nation … cannot admit into its population any element that of necessity must be of an inferior nature and character.” In other words, as Yarwood and Knowling argue, the ability of a race or nation to survive was seen “to depend on keeping the national arteries pure.” Such rhetoric was frequently applied to the issue of intermarriage between Chinese men and white women, and the fear that Chinese men would taint the 'purity' of the European race. However, it is appropriated in this editorial to apply to the general health of the nation or British people, which warns of the vulnerability of “the white man” in the face of the impure and disease-laden Chinese. The birth and continued survival of the nation and the Australian people, then, was framed in direct opposition to a nefarious and disease-harbouring foreign threat. 


¹ John Goldsmid, The Deadly Legacy: Australian History and Transmissible Disease (NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1988), 40.
² P.H. Curson, Times of Crisis: Epidemics in Sydney 1788-1900 (Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 1985), 94.
³ Ibid, 103.
⁴ Ibid, 107.
⁵ Sir Henry Parkes, 16 May 1888, quoted in Alison Bashford, Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 148.
⁶ A.T. Yarwood and M.J. Knowling, Race Relations in Australia: A History (NSW: Meuthen Australia, 1982), 179.

Smallpox Hotspots (Original map: "City of Sydney & Suburbs, 1887," Historical Atlas of Sydney).

The five highlighted areas accounted for 66% of all smallpox cases and 68% of all deaths during the outbreak. They were overwhelmingly occupied by some of the city's poorest residents.

12 10 1881 Sydney Mail.PNG

"The Smallpox Scare (Fumigating Railway Passengers on the Southern Border.)," Sydney Mail, 10 December, 1881.

Fumigation was commonly employed during the outbreak in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading. In the above image, railway passengers at the New South Borders are being fumigated. 

Exhibit B: Early Responses