‘Beauty often has a dark side’: The truth behind one of Sydney’s most scenic spots

It is one of Sydney’s most scenic spots. Towering sandstone cliffs topped with endangered banksia scrub guard the entrance to Sydney Harbour, providing sanctuary to a rich array of native animals, including an endangered community of long-nosed bandicoots and penguins.
Nanjing Night Net

But North Head was also a place of disease and death for Indigenous people as well as convicts and migrants making the arduous and often lengthy journey from their homelands.

More than 500 people were laid to rest in the three burial grounds at North Head, although artist Susan Milne said: “I imagine there were many more deaths.”

Milne was one of 10 artists who were invited by Manly Art Gallery & Museum to explore the site’s Aboriginal heritage, environmental significance, military history and migration stories after camping at North Head earlier this year.

Thier artworks will be exhibited in The North Head Project at the gallery until February 18.

Made of gauze and bearing crosses, Milne’s artwork, Souls on Board, represents the 572 recorded deaths at the Quarantine Station, which opened in the 1830s and operated for more than 150 years.

“As part of the disembarkation method for a yellow-flagged ship moored in the waters off the station, the travellers were protected and isolated, incubated and infected, sealed and preserved,” she said. “Each soul was in limbo, in a hospital where fumigation, steam and lime were the salving agents.”

More than 13,000 people passed through the station from ships suspected of transporting people infected with contagious diseases, such as typhus, smallpox, Spanish influenza and bubonic plague.

“Some of the staff working at the Quarantine Station also died,” Milne said. “It was the arrival of the Europeans and disease, which had a devastating impact on the Aboriginal people in this region. Beauty often has a dark side.”

Milne’s thoughts were echoed by photographer Tamara Dean, who said she kept “straying back” to the Quarantine Station.

“In particular the evocative stories of people being placed outside and treated with the fresh air to try to heal them, as well as imagining the discomfort of being sick in the hospital beds in the heat we had experienced ourselves,” she said.

The North Head Project features landscape paintings, photography, porcelain, botanical watercolours and Karla Dickens’ Unwelcome, an upturned boat with oars bearing cruel messages aimed at Aboriginal people and refugees.

Dickens said North Head was a site of death and destruction for Indigenous people: “The foreigners were quarantined to heal and deal with infectious diseases at the same time as the First Australians were poisoned, murdered and raped.”

Curator Katherine Roberts described the site as “an amalgam of Australian history” for its overlapping Indigenous, social, environmental and military stories.

Rich in flora and fauna, North Head was crucial to Sydney’s coastal defences, laced with tunnels, equipped with artillery and home to soldiers. It was also colonised by the Catholic church, which built a seminary and Bishop’s palace on the slopes above Manly.

“I can see North Head from my office window; ever-present, monumental and rich in natural and social history,” she said. “This charged site is relevant, thought-provoking and especially ripe for artists’ interpretations.”

The North Head Project is at Manly Art Gallery & Museum until February 18, 2018.

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