The Aboriginal heritage values of the former Quarantine Station site are integral to the cultural significance of the place. It is part of the richer history of Aboriginal occupation of Sydney Harbour and the wider district. There is little detailed knowledge of the Aboriginal presence on the Manly peninsula. The local clan associated with North Head were the Gayimai. North Head was also used by the powerful koradgee of the Cameraigal clan for healing and burial ceremonies.
North Head is the site of some of the earliest contact and formative interaction between Aborigines and the British invaders. On 29 January 1788 Captain Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley landed on Quarantine Beach during an initial survey of Sydney Harbour following the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson three days earlier.
Hoping to learn more about Aboriginal customs and language to foster contact, in December 1788 Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo at present day Manly Cove. He soon lived freely in the Sydney settlement. Nearly one year later in November 1789 Bennelong and Colbee were also kidnapped from the same place. They both soon escaped.
Governor Phillip was speared at Manly Cove the following year by Wil-le-me-ring, a friend of Bennelong. Phillip was trying to convince Bennelong to return to Sydney. It led to Bennelong re-establishing contact with Phillip when he went to inquire after his health. He became a regular visitor at Government House and a personal relationship between the two of them developed. Phillip had a hut built for him on the site of what became Bennelong Point where the Sydney Opera House now stands.
The local Aboriginal communities were the earliest victims of introduced diseases in the colony. Diseases such as smallpox swept through the local Cadigal communities. By 1791 smallpox alone had killed a large proportion of the Aboriginal population around Port Jackson. Arabanoo was one of the many victims, dying in May 1789. Some clans almost disappeared. This disaster could have been prevented or minimised had quarantine processes been in place from the time of the colony's establishment.
The North Head site was chosen as the location for a quarantine station for three reasons:
- The site was the first safe anchorage point inside the Heads.
- The site was sufficiently isolated and, at the time, a safe distance from the centre of Sydney.
- The presence of natural springs to ensure a water supply made the site habitable
From the 1830s to 1984 migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious disease stopped inside North Head and off-loaded passengers and crew into quarantine to protect local residents from becoming sick.
After an average time of 40 days, most passengers were released to settle as Australian residents. Their experiences of quarantine varied. Some passengers experienced a first class resort, making new friends and sharing dreams of a bright new future. For others it was a far more frightening experience of disempowerment, disease and death. Regardless of the type of quarantine experience the spirit forged by the people at the former Quarantine Station helped to shape our nation.
The Quarantine Station evolved over 150 years, growing during periods of infectious disease and shrinking during periods of health and diminishing government funds.