Race, poverty and disease: before the age of COVID-19

By Anne O’Brien
Sydney c.1900/The Powerhouse Museum Collection

19th century Sydney provides useful insight into the politics of epidemics because there were a number in relatively quick succession and they provoked different reactions. Asking why some provoked panic and generated scapegoats and others did not, illuminates relationships between race, class and disease.

The epidemic that is generally considered to have caused most panic and division – quite out of proportion to the numbers involved – was the smallpox epidemic of 1881-82. It notoriously provoked hostility to the Chinese who were wrongly blamed for introducing and spreading the disease.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was fanned by newspapers and by the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, who prohibited 450 Chinese sea passengers from disembarking in Sydney, declared China and all its ports ‘infected places’ and passed a new law that significantly restricted the number of Chinese entering NSW. Even The Bulletin, never a friend to the Chinese, accused Parkes of scapegoating the Chinese to deflect attention from his government’s poor handling of the disease.

Interior of a Chinese Gambling House, 1871. State Library of Victoria

Parkes’ responses legitimised street violence against the Chinese. They were ejected from shops and other public places, prevented from using trams and spat on in the street; one man’s house was burned down after he had been taken to the Quarantine Station. Panic was exacerbated by a lack of co-ordination between various government departments and poor management of the Quarantine Station. Popular prejudice – not just against the Chinese – meant that hundreds of people were quarantined because their neighbours reported ‘suspicious behaviour’, including some who were uninfected until they went to the QS.

Scapegoating of the Chinese occurred to deflect attention from the government’s poor handling of the disease.

Why did this epidemic generate such a panicked reaction? It was neither the first nor the most virulent of the epidemics in Sydney. Scarlet fever had taken 600 lives just a few years before whereas 41 people died of smallpox. Scarlet fever, of course, was a disease of childhood and childhood illnesses were an expected part of life. But ‘Asiatic Flu’ infected adults and an outbreak ten years later generated little panic despite higher infection and death rates. 

Here the cultural resonance of smallpox is important. Flu was more familiar and did not carry the same odium: smallpox was highly infectious, survivors were disfigured and it could lead to an agonising death. The fact that smallpox was associated with the Chinese intensified fear and rage.

“The Mongolian Octopus – his grip on Australia”, The Bulletin, 1886
State Library of New South Wales

But why was racism so dominant then? In one sense this seems a non-question given the well-known racist attacks against the Chinese on the 1850s goldfields. But there is more contingency at play than might seem at first sight. For many of the gold-seekers had gone home by the early 1860s after which the attacks subsided and racist laws were repealed. In the late 1870s, however, a series of events lead to a resurgence of racism. Large numbers of Chinese came to Queensland during a gold rush in 1877, seamen conducted a nation-wide strike against Chinese labour in 1878, and increasing urban migration heightened the visibility of the Chinese. The timing of the smallpox epidemic meant it reflected and exacerbated already growing prejudice.

The greatest sources of medical fear in the British Empire during the 19th century were the urban poor and ‘the native races’.

Poverty and class were also apparent in reactions to Sydney’s epidemics, most clearly in two that affected only children. The 1875 outbreak of scarlet fever produced far more public angst than an outbreak of measles in 1866, again in inverse proportion to the death rates: Why? Scarlet fever was less familiar and the epidemic was longer, but it occurred over a wider geographical spread and it affected more children of the middle and upper classes.  The measles epidemic was geographically confined and most of those who died were children of the poor: the mortality rates were particularly high in the Randwick Children’s Asylum and the Benevolent Asylum and in the inner city where poor families were liable to malnutrition.

The patterns outlined here are a microcosm of bigger trends. The greatest sources of medical fear in the 19th century British Empire were the urban poor and ‘the native races’.

But another pattern in 19th century Sydney reverses imperial assumptions. For the Gadigal people, the greatest source of medical fear was settlers. In 1789 the Gadigal experienced the most devastating of all epidemics in Sydney – almost half the population died. This was the only epidemic comparable with those that wiped out swathes of the population in Europe in the middle ages. Historians debate its origins but not its terrible effects. It undermined culture and social viability because it attacked women and the old.  The epidemic generated little fear and panic in settlers, but the absence of certainty about its origins gave rise to the search for a scapegoat. Given England’s historic enmity with France, the visit of the French navigator, La Perouse filled the vacancy even though it took place over a year before the outbreak.

A history of Sydney’s epidemics suggests the importance of containing, not just disease, but the fear and racism that can compound it; of prioritizing the needs of those with least resources who are always most vulnerable; and of recognising multiple vantage points in narratives of disease.

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