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Off-shore: lockdown topographies

To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking … The landscapes, urban and rural, gestate the stories, and the stories bring us back to the sites of history.  

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust A History of Walking 

In the annals of COVID-19, walking narratives already have their own special subset. This is a virus walk-story, a type of wandering in place that yet ranges across other times and geographies.

Walking, as Michel de Certeau noted in The Practice of Everyday Life, is a rhetoric. The selection of a path is an act of composition akin to the turning of a phrase.  A style of walking, like style in writing, ‘connotes a singular’, a ‘way of being in the world’ and a particular ‘processing of the symbolic.’

The walking rhetorics of this essay set a course across land, river and sea, at a crossroads of topographies and temporalities. Its turns, returns and detours encompass sheep and sea eagles, prison islands, a limestone rise, all manner of boats. Along its perambulations, another geography, strange, ancient and implacable, rises through the brittle lines of a small nineteenth-century settler colonial town set hard against the coastline of the Indian Ocean; sounds through its unsettled and shifting toponymies, Noongar, British, Australian.

 

WEEK 1, Day 4

It is only days now, and already the rhythm of our daily life has adapted to the unthinkable. Morning and evening we make our way, our small, interdependent, interspecies cluster: two canines, two humans, bound to one another by our shared intimacies and newly discovered vulnerabilities. Shrouded in our invisible pod, already, by reflex, we turn into a collective huddle as others approach, with only a small acknowledgment – a yelp, a namasté – across the width of the street.

Almost overnight, the mundane practice of our walks has acquired new inflections: in an economy of lockdown, it seems, a dog to be walked represents a new type of currency. Is it this unexpected twist, this subtle rebalancing of needs at both ends of a leash, that adds a surreal quality to our stepping out onto silent streets?

Without the usual traffic sounds, our walks feel unreal. There is a translucent immateriality to the hush of this perfect transitional weather, the soft blue skies and red flowers that mark the season of Djeran.

Our morning walks take us across Tuckfield Oval and down the levelled stages of the rise to the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan. On flattened ground cut into the limestone, tucked out of sight of Canning highway and looking down on the river, a small family (a woman, kids, a dog) has set up camp under the thick spread of a Moreton Bay fig tree, doubtless staying clear of the bizarre round-ups that are placing the unhoused under guard in four-star hotels.

At dusk, as we retrace our steps, we can see lights from their fire and the sway of a paper lantern. Along the Derbarl Yerrigan, the tide has started to go out, although dolphins still leap in the distance. Closer in, the swans for whom the interlopers named this place are starting to come ashore. Swan River Colony, a failed name soon to be replaced by a brutally serviceable one: Western Australia. To European eyes, the black swan was a contradiction in terms, like much of the antipodes, an upturning or inversion of the natural order of things. The receding tide reveals them planted here on webbed feet, a solid black line, standing their ground.

 

Week 3, Day 5

Our walks set the tempo of our days, though one day is not so different from another. Our morning course takes us invariably past Rifle Cottage and Gun House, stationed side by side, with Gun House on slightly larger and higher ground, as befits the Commander’s residence. On the other side of the oval, where once there might have been a parade ground, are the Artillery Barracks.

Prisons, asylums and barracks define the limits of the old town: the architectural signature of occupation. Cantonment Hill rises above, a name redolent of childhood walks in Colombo, another Indian Ocean port city of the British Empire. A signal station, now abandoned, sits at the crest. Quarried relentlessly for its limestone and riddled with tunnels and small paths, the hill is still home to small wild life and imported pests. The majestic creatures invoked by its Noongar names – Dwerda Weelardinup, meaning ‘Place of Dingo Spirit’ and Walyarup or ‘Sea Eagle’s nest’ – are, however, nowhere in evidence to our always out-of-place eyes.

 

Week 8, Day 7

We clamber up to the look-out, where Fremantle harbour spreads before us. Where British armies once watched for submarines (invasion anxieties beset this settler nation) our apprehensive gaze is focused on the Artania, looking deceptively shipshape as it lies under quarantine. Interrupting the hush we now take for granted, there are media helicopters flying overhead. Like the more notorious Diamond Princess and Ruby Princess, The Artania is a floating paradox: a cruise ship devoted to luxury and indulgence now turned into an object of fear and abjection, an incubator of virus.

Fremantle Harbour from Cantonment Hill, with the Artania in the distance

 

The Artania docked in Fremantle under circumstances for which the cruise operator, the state government and the federal government all disavow responsibility. Eighty-one people were diagnosed with Covid-19 and taken onshore to hospital and quarantine, leading to three fatalities, one a member of the crew. Hundreds more crew and passengers remain on board.

Along with that of the Ruby Princess, linked to the country’s largest outbreak of over 800 infections, the presence of the Artania transfixes Australia for weeks. Perhaps one reason is that the cruise ship, indeed, feels like a chronotope of this Covid moment. In the shape of these gleaming hulks, time thickens, takes on flesh. These opulent unmoored containers of disease encapsulate the most violent contradictions of globalisation – its environmental ravages, its travesties of luxury for the aspirational classes and surplus populations of capitalist excess, its stark racialised inequalities covered over by a veneer of multicultural geniality between crew and passengers. Before our eyes, they turn into artefacts of a bygone era, like wrecks preserved at the bottom of the ocean, engulfed by unknown but instantaneous catastrophe.

In the spectacle of the cruise ships, too, echoes of this country’s recent and not-so-recent past: maritime arrivals from whom we turn away our faces, sovereign borders, fortress states, prison islands. Eighteen miles offshore lies the island of Wadjemup, where Rottenest Prison was established just a few years after Captain Charles Fremantle hoisted the British flag at the mouth of the Derbarl Yerrigan in 1829, and claimed this coast for George IV. Aboriginal prisoners were ferried to Rottnest Prison in neck chains and shackles. At night, families would signal to their imprisoned kin on Wadjemup through secret fires on Cantonment Hill. Hundreds of these captives would never see their countries again.

Group of prisoners arranged for a photograph in The Quod at Rottnest Prison, 1893. State Library of Western Australia 5478B/20.

 

Week 9, Day 1

Since those days, as a nation we have become adept at offshore detention. Locked up in a hotel in Melbourne for over a year, sixty men are brought to the mainland for medical treatment after seven years on Manus Island. They appeal for help: ‘it’s like a cruise ship in here … The problem is that they have brought the virus inside this place.’

Indeed, private security operators alternate between the outsourced detention of refugees and the outsourced detention of quarantined travellers. In Melbourne, a new surge of infections is traceable to breeches of hotel quarantine. Disturbing patterns link the quarantine of travellers and the detention of asylum seekers and refugees.

An account yet remains to be written of the ways in which the virus redraws borders and blurs edges between groups while, at the same time, through violence against refugee and migrant bodies, political and epidemiological borders reinforce one another. The New York Times’ editorial board writes that, through its deportations of migrants the United Sates is ‘consciously spreading the pandemic beyond its borders … to poor countries ill equipped to cope with the disease.’ In Australia, international students become trapped in ways that remind us of asylum seekers, deprived of the means of life to stay, yet unable to leave.

This pandemic makes borders legible in new ways.  For some, the death counts and interactive maps tracking the global movement of the virus recall the monitoring of sea journeys and charting of refugee movements. For others, the act of crossing borders is made visible anew, as different sorts of bodies are ensnared at airports and surveillance points. These redraw once again the permeable lines between rights and rightlessness, the privileges and limits of citizenship. Different biopolitical permutations are playing out before our eyes from moment to moment. Ariane Shahvisi writes

Covid-19 is teaching many of us what it feels like to be dislocated from the past and face a future that hangs in the balance, to scan the faces of loved ones on grainy video calls for signs of illness or worry, to have our travel documents become meaningless, to feel unable to seek healthcare, to wonder who will be taken from us before we all land somewhere safe. Yet most of us are facing this discontinuity in our homes, speaking of the return to ‘normality’ as a place of refuge and belonging. There’s a port at the end of all this.

When the ‘second wave’ broke in Melbourne, officials were quick to justify the hard lockdown imposed without warning on the Housing Commission towers, home mostly to refugee communities. Drawing on now entrenched associations of blameworthiness, the towers are described as ‘vertical cruise ships.’

The irony of comparing the affluent lifestyles associated with the Artania or Ruby Princess to the run-down and unsafe accommodation provided for the state’s most disadvantaged seemed lost on many.  It was left to Ahmed Dini, a resident of the towers, to point out the stark realities of racialised deprivation and denial of rights experienced by those living in the towers:

To use the word detention for Australian citizens … most of these people might as well be stuck on Manus Island.

Daniel Reeders, whose experience in public health dates back to the AIDS crisis, pointed out that

the outbreak emerged out of clusters among casualized workers in meat works, aged care, childcare, private security, fast food and freight [where] the workers are often employed by labour hire firms and ‘booked’ shift by shift … Many are temporary migrants and … losing a job can mean instant family hardship.

This casual-yet-essential racialised workforce keeps the abattoirs and aged care functioning – and keeps the cruise ships in business.

Jericho Brown’s poem, ‘Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry,’ published just a few days earlier, in another world, accompanies me all the way on the walk back down Cantonment Hill:

I don’t know whose side you’re on,
But I am here for the people
Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning
And close down for deep cleaning at night
Right up the street and in cities I mispronounce,
In towns too tiny for my big black
Car to quit, and in every wide corner
Of Kansas where going to school means
At least one field trip
To a slaughterhouse.
I want so little: another leather bound
Book, a gimlet with a lavender gin, bread
So good when I taste it I can tell you
How it’s made.

They say, Thank you. They say, Sorry,
We don’t sell motor oil anymore with a grief so thick
You could touch it. Go on. Touch it.
It is early. It is late. They have washed their hands.
They have washed their hands for you.
And they take the bus home.

 

Week 12, Day 3

When the Artania finally departed Fremantle harbour, under renewed pressure from authorities, locals watched it sail away with mixed feelings. Passengers who were nationals of privileged states had been already removed under special dispensation to be flown home on chartered flights. Those remaining on board were mostly crew, sailing into the unknown. School kids who had written postcards to these stranded seafarers throughout the weeks of stand-off were there to wave them off. The moment of departure was almost festive as, in a gallant gesture, two crew members got married a few metres from the gangplank shortly before embarking.

Months later, according to CNN, over 50,000 of them remain on board empty cruise ships, adrift on various oceans. Seafarers, an invisible population and a new type of globalization’s castaways. 

 

Week 13, Day 4

Imperceptibly, the weeks have moved on. Looking out on another type of carrier from the crest of Cantonment Hill, we are aware of the chilly squalls of Makuru. All day, the wind from the docks has set us on edge, the dogs unusually alert, the humans decidedly queasy.

The stench is all too familiar in this port city: thousands of sheep, trucked to the docks for loading on to ships for the long voyage north. Many of us have stories of terrified sheep and cattle, desperate to escape, making a dive a freedom. Some manage to swim to shore, or are rescued, lowing for help, only to be taken back on board. A few years ago, a cow who had leapt overboard managed to swim to the beach, and ran desperately along the foreshore eluding pursuit, before collapsing of a heart attack in full view of beach goers. In the face of these everyday local cruelties, most of us know how to avert our eyes and hold our noses.

Sheep are intertwined with settler Australia’s story. As Christopher Mayes has documented, to make way for sheep, Indigenous people and their animals – especially the dingo – were displaced, and at times actively eliminated. Attacks on sheep were understood as an existential threat to the settler ethos and Indigenous men were executed for the offence of sheep-stealing, or else taken to Rottnest jail in chains.  Shearers, stockmen and graziers, on the other hand, enjoy mythic status as a type of national hero. It is a truism that Australia’s post-WW2 prosperity is ‘built on the sheep’s back.’

Today we woke to the news that the spread of COVID-19 among the crew of a sheep transport vessel has thrown a spanner in the works of the live export trade. The Al Kuwait, which was berthed adjacent to the Artania, now has a number of infected crew and is unable to set sail. Fifty-six thousand sheep, brought to the docks in stinking trucks yesterday, are now loaded up again and taken to a feed-lot to await the outcome of a ruling on whether the ship can sail with a new crew. A ban is in place on sheep carriers departing after June 1, directly into the heat of the northern summer. It was put in place after horrific revelations in 2018 of sheep subjected to conditions of extreme heat on transport ships.

 

Week 15, Day 2

The exporters sought an exception to the ruling to allow the Al Kuwait to sail regardless. It dragged on for nearly three weeks. Eventually, despite the risk to the sheep from heightened temperatures due to an eighteen-day delay in setting out, the ship was cleared to leave. Before a court injunction could be sought to stop it, the Al Kuwait sailed out of Fremantle Harbour with 50,000 sheep on board.

From the Place of Dingo Spirit, we look down on the purpose-built sheep carrier Al Kuwait.  Unlike in the case of the Artania, few of us, except for a handful of determined protesters, had the heart to watch it depart.

Exhibit, Old Cumuldarnup Homestead Museum, Ongerup, WA

 

Week 15, Day 6

Pandemic temporality combines intense stasis, a sense of having lost track of days and weeks, with frantic attention to the moment; our hyperactive on-line lives obsessively track media across multiple news cycles.

As we monitor infection trends and compare death counts from the stillness of lockdown, times of lag and times of escalation merge into one another. At other times, on-line life overruns the space of our lockdown lives, collapsing the categories and frameworks that hold each in place.

The killing of George Floyd is one such instant of collapse, a breaking open of time and space. Abruptly, the accustomed tempo of everyday life in viral times collides with the insistent presence of what Alexandra Juhasz named – four years ago, when virality was only a convenient metaphor – viral black death: the circulation of video and webcam footage witnessing the public killing of black Americans by agents of the state (on this see also Kimberly Fain).

George Floyd was murdered in plain sight by Derek Chauvin and fellow members of the Minneapolis Police Department. What made this footage so distinctive among the proliferation of citizen-recorded police killings – Ava DuVernay remarks in the immediate aftermath – is that the faces of both victim and killer are simultaneously before us, ‘perfectly framed’ by the camera during the long minutes of the killing. Both the prone, suffocating face of George Floyd and the calculatedly nonchalant countenance of his killer are caught for the viewer in a shattering symmetry. We look them both in the eye. This perhaps accounts for how this ultimate artefact of viral black death resounds in profound and global ways with the virality of the times.

 

Week 16, Day 4

George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin and fellow police officers, but the autopsy reveals that Floyd was by then already infected with Covid-19. Both George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, his fellow-victim of police killing who nursed those hospitalised by the virus, are part of what Steven W Thrasher names the viral underclass: ‘a population harmed not simply by microscopic organisms but by the societal structures that make viral transmission possible’: that is, structures of racialised disposability and economic precarity.

The killing of George Floyd thus was a moment of deep clarification, a making visible, across the globe, of the ways in which we experience ‘the societal structures that make viral transmission possible’ on so many levels of daily life. ‘I can’t breathe,’ the desperate last words of George Floyd and Eric Garner as US police stifled their lives out of them, were repeated twelve times by the young Dunghutti man David Dungay, suffocated to death by five prison officials in Sydney’s Long Bay gaol in 2016. 

As a call to action by Black Lives Matter protesters, in Australia as in the United States, I can’t breathe refers to suffocation within the monumentality of white racial ‘societal structures’, symbolic and material. 

 

Week 17, Day 3

The protests that followed the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, first in the US and then in other global cities, also clarified that the logic of Black Lives Matter is a localised and spatial logic: the logic of everyday lives lived in nominated topographies, delineated in the names of public spaces, our squares, parks and streets, and shaped in the seemingly enduring shadow of monuments of racial power. The built environments of US cities, their highways and skyscrapers, stand as monuments to the same forces that erected statues of confederate generals.  

Following the toppling of statues of slave traders and imperial murderers in Europe, the state government of Western Australia quickly announced that the King Leopold Ranges, more than 2,000 kilometres away from the state capital, from now are to be known officially as the Wunaamin-Miliwundi Ranges, following consultation with local groups.

The Ranges were renamed from their original Ngarinyin and Bunuba names in 1879 by Alexander Forrest, described as an explorer, surveyor and land-agent – trades indistinguishable from the appropriation and dispossession of Aboriginal country. His brother, also a land agent and surveyor, went on to become the state’s first Premier. Today, the Forrest family is associated with a vast network of mining, trade, financial and philanthropic interests, all buttressed by immense wealth, land holdings and political influence.

Like the names of other powerful settler families – Canning, Stirling, Roe – that shape our built environment and the very infrastructure of the state, the name Forrest appears on many street signs, highways, buildings and statues. Aboriginal families who bear the same names signal ties of patronage or blood to these powerful men, forged in the crucible of violent settler histories. But no official moves are announced to reconsider the ubiquitous memorialization of these names.  They remain part of the monumental infrastructure of settler violence, naturalised, largely invisible.

 

Week 17, Day 5

As BLM protests spread across Australian cities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison casts them as an irrelevant distraction. In Australia, he says, ‘there was no slavery.’  (Later, he would retract this statement).  

The day after Morrison’s remarks, we are gathered once again in the shadow of Cantonment Hill, at sunset, on a site looking out to Fremantle harbour. The Derbal Yerrigan spreads below us. Off in the distance, out of view but an enduring presence, is the prison island of Rottnest.  

We stand before a local landmark, a sculpture known as Rainbow, by artist Marcus Canning. The site, Number 1 Canning Highway, is at a local crossroads, with Stirling Bridge across the water. The sculpture, a series of multicolored shipping containers linked into the shape of an arch, invokes the inclusive openness of a port city, a gateway to all that lies beyond. It is a monument to rainbow optimism that puts our best face forward. Usually, it is a spot much favored by tourists. Today, there are none to be seen, just a small, socially distanced, group of locals. Motorists pass by on Canning Highway, sound an occasional sympathetic honk.  

Hannah McGlade, Noongar activist, academic, speaks, directly addressing the Prime Minister’s claims that there was no slavery in Australia.

Across the world, people are making a powerful stand against racial oppression, violence and inequality that is rendering Black lives very unsafe.

Since 1990 more than 434 Aboriginal people have died in police and prison custody. Since George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by an officer now charged with murder, we have here in Perth witnessed the death of an Aboriginal man at Acacia prison, and an Aboriginal woman at Bandyup is in critical condition after being body-slammed by guards…

The Prime Minister thinks that Black Lives Matter should not be imported into this country from overseas. He said we had no slavery in this country.

The first building erected in the Swan River Colony was the Roundhouse in Fremantle, it was built in 1830 to incarcerate Aboriginal men who resisted colonists’ attempts to enslave and indenture them to wealthy pastoralists. Many of the men forcibly taken in neck chains to Rottnest, Wadjemup, died at the island, many were executed and this island is the largest mass grave in Australia today.

I am the great-granddaughter of Ethel Woyung who was indentured as a girl and whose brother Mindum was incarcerated at Wadjemup which he escaped …

When we say Black Lives matter, here in Australia, we are speaking of Ms Dhu, Cherdeena Wynne, Chad Riley, Joyce Clarke, and many more.

We remember the two young men who died after being chased into the Derbarl Yerrigan river on a cold and windy day by police.

And we remember our people once pursued on order of Governor Stirling and chased into the Murray River (Pinjarra River) and shot at. They were massacred, men, women and children. …

They told us not to come [today]. They told us to be silent.

We will not be silent. We will say their names.

As McGlade speaks, the ghost of Alfred Canning, for whom this highway is named, is not far away. Canning is another architect of the settler infrastructure of this state. His projects include the Rabbit Proof Fence and the Canning Stock Route, designed to open beef markets for the graziers of the north. Following his work on the stock route, Canning faced a Royal Commission of inquiry on charges relating to his treatment of the Indigenous people in its path. They included:  

Forcing the natives to accompany the party;

Chaining by the neck natives who had done nothing to deserve being deprived of their liberty … ;

Unnecessarily depriving natives of their water supply by deepening and squaring their native wells rendering it impossible for old men, women and … [children] to reach the water, and causing the water to be polluted by animals falling in;

Hunting native women on foot and horseback, sometimes with rifles, for immoral purposes;

Using threats and giving bribes to native men to induce them to direct their women to have connection with the members of the expedition.

Canning was acquitted on all charges.

On this site at 1 Canning Highway, in the shadow of Cantonment Hill, overlooking the Derbarl Yerrigan and extending out to the harbour, we have decided to project the names of some of the hundreds of Indigenous people who died in custody on the Rainbow sculpture by Marcus Canning.

The last of the Makuru sun inflames the arc with a fiery intensity before subsiding into a steady half-light. The names keep coming: Lloyd Boney. Christine Jones. Ms Dhu. Alfred Dougal. David Gundy. David Dungay. Cherdeena Wynne. Chad Riley. Mr Ward. And so many more.

From Projection series by Stephen Aliyan, Fremantle, June 12, 2020

 

Week 18, Day 1

The small family with their camp tucked out of sight of Canning Highway, looking out on the Derbarl Yerrigan, has moved on overnight, a sign that the lockdown is starting to ease here on the west coast. Soon, the rhythm of our walks will become more desultory, less weighted, integrated back into the business of everyday living.

Viral lives, viral deaths. This virus, for so many of us, has acted as a clarifier of the histories, places and environments in which we live. How else to explain the nightly protests that still continue months later, in so many US cities, and elsewhere? In this small Indian Ocean town, the turns and returns of my virus walk-story retrace a terrain that is both already known and brought newly into view: our lives in the viral times of Covid-19 are not to be separated from the viral deaths of George Floyd and the many other deaths that come before and after.

We look them in the eye.  

Drone image of Fremantle harbour, with projection in the foreground.

 

Acknowledgment: My thanks to my colleagues in the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University for their support on this project. This writing also forms part of my contribution to the research project The Deadly Intersections of Covid 19 led by Professor Sunera Thobani at the University of British Columbia.

Drone projections by Stephen Aliyan. Photos by Mark Binns, Suvendrini Perera, Antonio Traverso and anonymous drone photographer. More images of the projections can be accessed at Saying Their Names, Fremantle, on the Deathscapes website.  

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Suvendrini Perera’s books include Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats and Bodies. She led the transnational project Deathscapes: Mapping Racial Violence in Settler States (2016-2020) funded by the Australian Research Council. A book based on the project, Mapping Deathscapes: Digital Geographies of Racial and Border Violence, coedited with Joseph Pugliese, is due from Routledge in 2021.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this riveting, humanising, bracing and eloquently written unfoldment of walking through the histories, traces, echoes and presences quickened and revealed through the current global pandemic and the wash of multiple oppressions. This essay reminds us of Toni Morrison’s guiding ethic of “looking at things without blinking.”

  2. Wonderful writing and food for thought.
    Thanks Suvendi
    We are very lucky to have you in our neighborhood

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