Monday, 28 November 2016

Quarantine Station--Cocos (Keeling) Islands

What was it like working on the Cocos Quarantine Station? On Monday, November 28 2016, I was lucky enough to join my daughter's social science class at Cocos Islands District High School as they tried to answer this question.

National Library of Australia photo of Ostriches at Quarantine Station taken in 1995

These Grade 2-3 social scientists are uncovering local history. The topic of concern this week--the defunct Quarantine Station--once formed an important part of what we now call the 'biosecurity' of Australia. By joining them, I had the chance to learn a lot about life on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Nek Diana (Nek Didi); Mr Wicks (Pak Tali); Mak Maesha

The field trip was organised by Social Studies teacher Mr Wicks. Fortunately, Nek Diana, a former employee at the Quarantine Station, agreed to give us a tour. The children had prepared all the right questions; Nek, Mak Mia and Mak Mae helped translate and keep everything running smoothly; I simply had to relax and learn.

National Library of Australia photo of Quarantine Station taken in 1995

Quarantine Station

Basically, the West Island quarantine station provided animal quarantine. Animals being imported to Australia were temporarily kept there. The animals were destined for farms and zoos. Vets could work out if the animals had diseases which could spread to Australian animals. Mostly the animals were healthy, but the workers at the station had to keep them healthy by washing, exercising,  and feeding them. The Quarantine Station apparently operated from 1981. A set of stamps was even issued, in 1996, to commemorate the Quarantine Station. 

Cocos (Keeling) Islands Quarantine Station First Day Cover

The Quarantine Station seems to have wound down in the 2000s. However, 8 elephants were housed here before being cleared for transportation, in 2006, to zoos in Sydney and Melbourne. (You can see them on Cocos in a documentary entitled Flight of the Elephants at around the 34:00 minute mark.) And, more recently, the excellent buildings were put to good use in 2012, housing Sri Lankan asylum seekers. 

Nek Didi

Nek Didi
The Quarantine Station was mostly staffed by workers from the Australian mainland. However, two Cocos Malays, in particular, worked there for many years: Nek Didi and Nek Kaya. So I was very lucky to join in Nek Didi's tour. 

The concrete for the brick buildings was laid by the Cocos Co-op under Nek Ainul and Nek Jamil. Workers from Australian mainland helped build the structures.

Before the tour began Nek Didi explained to us that the animals' blood would be tested. This would ensure that sick animals would not make it to the mainland. Either they would be cured at the Quarantine Station or put down. For larger animals, Nek Didi told us, they would use a gun. The area of the Quarantine Station is large because the animals needed space to exercise.

The tour

First, Nek Didi took us to the barn where they had a machine for making animal food. This machine mixed and pressed grass clippings to make food pellets for the sick animals.

Then we looked at the composting area, where all the waste and dead carcasses were transformed into fertiliser for the fields of the station. The composting area was behind the shed where all the hazardous materials were stored.

Shed for hazardous materials, behind which the composting occurred.

After that, Nek Didi took as into the barns where the animals were washed.
Barns for animal washing? 1995

Mr Wicks and students inspect the same (?) washing facilities in 2016.
Following this, we went to what I think is called the stocks or a stockyard, where a herd of animals is sorted into a single file, leading, ultimately, to the stocks.

At the stocks, the animal is held still for the sample to be taken.
Then we saw the animal hospital and laboratory, where the blood samples were analysed.

Bacteriology desk

Finally, we headed up to the mess and single men's quarters. The mess, as the students learned, is a place where people eat. Quarters are places to live for a short while; these quarters were for men who did not have their wives with them, or were unmarried. Nek Didi sometimes resided in the single men's quarters during his working years, because his family lived on Home Island.

Mess hall
The Sri Lankan asylum seekers were temporarily housed in the single men's quarters in 2008; and they used the mess hall and kitchen.

I think this was Pak Didi's favourite part of the tour. Maybe he liked that it was all well maintained. Maybe it was because he had so many nice memories from the time after 'knocking off' (finishing work) for the day. He was very happy to see the BBQ and remember the good times

Mess hall 

Analysis: Social Studies and Social Sciences

Social studies at school typically includes history and geography. At university, students and lecturers branch this out to study political science, anthropology, sociology, politics, archaeology, and so on. Along with history and geography, these studies are called 'disciplines' at university. So, for example, politics is known as one of the disciplines. At university, some people also use the word 'social sciences' to cover all these disciplines.  

Generally, social sciences are distinguished from the 'hard sciences' such as maths, chemistry, and physics. The social sciences are concerned with human life The way social scientists work is basically the same as social studies in school. When social scientists try to understand something, like what life was like working in the Quarantine Station--they start out asking 'who, what, when, where, why, and how' questions. They try to find out how things looked to people involved; like asking Pak Didi about his life working there. They try to visit place that they write about, like going to the Quarantine Station. So whether in social studies and social sciences we use the same techniques to try to understand human life better.

Mess kitchen
One thing that my social studies experience taught me was how much life for Cocos Malays changed as they increasingly became part of Australia. I could see this in how different life was for Pak Didi. Prior to working at the quarantined station, he told me he had collected coconuts as part of the Clunies-Ross's economy. He remembered how hard his life had been; waking while it was still dark, sailing out alone on his jukong, working all day alone collecting coconuts; returning exhausted; only to be paid in the despised plastic tokens. He seemed bitter and disconsolate when remembering that life. He it was like being a fish in a tank

The contrast with work on the Quarantine Station was palpable. He was sad to see the run down state of the animals' area. But he came particularly nostalgic and content when we came to the mess and single men's quarters, which are still in pretty good shape. So I could see how Pak Didi's life experience formed a small part of the large transformation that the Cocos Malays have undergone during Pak Didi's lifetime.

The social studies trip to the Quarantine Station with Nek Didi was a great learning experience for me. It was all thanks to the planning and insight of Mr Wicks, the assistance of Mak Mae, Mak Mia and Nek; the enthusiasm of the social studies students; and, most of all, the expert guidance of Nek Didi. So thank you to Cocos District High School for allowing me join the field trip

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nicolas = thank you for the blog. I was the first Admin Officer at the Station and it was originally staffed by myself, a Vet in Charge, a Vet, four senior stockmen and 2 stock assistants. The station was opened 15/11/81 when it accommodated several goats, sheep and cattle bred in a disease free quarantine facility. Cattle from North America were imported on two occasions in the years 1981 - 83. They were housed with the disease free animals (sentinels) and any disease in the sentinels indicated disease in the imported cattle. We had 2 lovely blokes from Home Island working with us - Anthony (I think Nek Didi) and Oomal - they were taught many skills and also taught us several - I learned to speak a little Malay. The Islanders in those days were not noticeably Muslim and that was only noticeably after the Aust govt purchased the land from the Clunies Ross family. I too was saddened to hear of the decay of the station as it was pristine when it opened and was considered as "state of the art". In 1981 there was also a new stamp minted as a cover to commemorate the station opening. A responsibility of the stock officers, apart from the animals, was to teach basic farming techniques to the Islanders. We were pleasantly surprised when we took seaweed from the lagoon, washed it over several weeks and then ploughed it into the soil - the plot produced rock melons the size of basketballs which were gladly received by the Islanders. I hope groups and people such as yourself continue to record history of what was a significant step for Australian mainland agriculture. Thanks for your words!