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The Dark Past of Rottnest Island

Around 4000 Aboriginal men and boys were imprisoned there and 370 of those were buried in unmarked shallow graves, making it the largest known burial site for Aboriginal people in the country.

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There are things in life that affect us as people who live in this world, on this Earth. One of those things is history – world history, local history and your own life history. The key here is what you are aware of, what you know and understand. It isn’t enough to live your life in isolation, to live alone without a care in the world because the fact is, your actions affect others. So does the knowledge you start with that informs what you do.

Black Lives Matter has always been a movement that individuals held as important. In my opinion, it has always been there even before slavery began. There were those who didn’t agree with the oppression. A minority at the time, but they were there.

So many historic events touch on different areas of discrimination and in Australia, the Indigenous community knows this too well. But for those of us who are not part of it, like me, we have such little understanding and knowledge about these historic events that have affected Aboriginal lives all these years and will continue to in the years to come.

Rottnest Island

Rottnest Island, or Wadjemup, has been a place that people go for various reasons: to spend time away from the city, to relax and visit the quokkas, or to enjoy the sunny beaches Western Australia has to offer. But how deep does our understanding of the history surrounding Rottnest Island go?

The island was actually the native land of the Whadjuk Nyoongar clan and it is still an important part of their mythology to this day. The ‘place across the water where the spirits are‘ was their home until sea levels rose, separating the island from the mainland about 7000 years ago.

Aboriginal male prisoners (outside Roebourne jail) with three armed guards. Image credit: State Library of Western Australia BA1713/2.

Wadjemup became a prison from 1838 to 1904 (excluding the years 1849 to 1855) for Aboriginal men and boys when a culture clash and lack of understanding grew in severity.

The Europeans never left the Island but instead, they cleared the land, blocked the freshwater springs, which meant traditional vegetation and animals were severely impacted. Laws were put in place, judging the Nyoongar people who had their own governance structure that was suddenly invalidated.

Left without a clear source of food, the Nyoongar men hunted whatever they saw – cows, sheep, and chickens. They all belonged to the land anyway, but according to white law, the animals belonged to people. What the Nyoongar clan understood as a means for survival, the Europeans saw as trespass, theft and killing of their livestock.

In 1838, when the first six prisoners arrived by boat, there was not yet a prison building, and they were allowed to freely move. Eventually, the prison became a place of Aboriginal suffering when Superintendent Henry Vincent started his cruel reign. In 1863, the Aboriginal prisoners he incarcerated were forced to build the Quod, where one small room of about five square metres would hold up to seven people. Rooms had no windows, beds or buckets for toilets.

Burial site signage on Wadjemup. Image credit: Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.

After the prison closed in 1904, the Aboriginal people continued to be used in forced labour camps until 1931 to build and develop the buildings we know today: the Seawall, heritage cottages in the main settlement, the lighthouse, museum and church. These buildings carry with them a historic meaning.

Around 4000 Aboriginal men and boys were imprisoned there and 370 of those were buried in unmarked shallow graves, making it the largest known burial site for Aboriginal people in the country. Undoubtedly, the historic significance of Wadjemup bears quite a trauma for the Indigenous community.

Significance of understanding

As Australians, this affects us because understanding history and culture is what binds us together to make us stronger.

 There is so much to learn and the more I read about Aboriginal history, the more I want to know. This newfound knowledge has given me more appreciation for the lesser-known events in Aboriginal history. After all, it is learning about the history that promotes empathy and understanding towards each other. Rottnest Island is only one of the many places in Australia filled with rich stories.

Mary Cheng

Mary Cheng

Mary has written articles for the 2019 Avon Descent and the 'Wellbeingness' committee at her work. Writing is a resurgent interest for Mary and she is working on writing her first book about discrimination and social justice.

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