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History & Culture

Quokka at Government House Lake

The Island earned its curious name when in 1696, Dutch explorer, William de Vlamingh, mistook the island’s unusual marsupial population for common rats and named it Rottnest – literally translating to ‘rats nest’. Today, having a photo taken alongside the ‘rats’ – known as Quokkas – is one of the main highlights for visitors to the island.


The Rottnest museum is housed in the original old mill and haystore that was built by Aboriginal prisoners in 1857. It provides fascinating insights and comprehensive information about the Island including history, marine wrecks, European settlement, Aboriginal prisoners, communication and recreations.

Salt Store windows

Constructed by Aboriginal prisoners in 1868, the Salt Store was originally used to hold the bagged salt collected from two of Rottnest Island’s salt lakes, ready for transportation to Fremantle. In 1997 the limestone building was restored but still retains many of its original features.


Today, this relaxed and unconventional venue is primarily used as a gallery space and hosts a variety of interpretive displays and unique art and photography exhibitions.

Lomas Cottage

Located on the Heritage Common, Lomas cottage was originally built for John Lomas, an ex-convict and later ‘Imperial Pauper’ for whom the Government provided housing and provisions. Over the years the cottage has served many different purposes. In 1997 it was restored to its original form and now serves as an exhibition space. The cottage provides interpretive information on the intriguing life of John Lomas and houses The Angelo Collection. The 15 photographs which comprise the Angelo Collection represent some of the most significant portraits of life on Rottnest Island in the 19th Century. The collection contains photographs of male Aboriginal prisoners engaged in a variety of activities on Rottnest Island and are perhaps the most significant and poignant photographs of their type.

Our Oldest Street

Walk past the Colonial streetscape of Vincent Way which is said to be the oldest ‘in-tact’ colonial streetscape in Australia and is an important part of Rottnest Island’s rich cultural history.

Z - Pilot Boat House insideout

A striking display of Rottnest’s maritime history, featuring a replica pilot boat and historic photographs are located in the Pilot Boathouse, which is located in the seawall east of the Visitor Centre.


More than thirteen ships have been wrecked within the waters of Rottnest Island. These wrecks are protected under Commonwealth legislation, Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, as well as State legislation, Maritime Archeology Act 1973. Plaques have been located next to the wrecks and are complemented by onshore plaques indicating their locations.

wadjemup lighthouse_3_2008

The Island’s first lighthouse was completed in 1851 and was constructed by Aboriginal prisoners, under the supervision of the Prison Superintendent. Half a century later it was replaced with a new, taller lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill; and a third was built in 1900 at Bathurst Point after the loss of 11 lives when the ship, the City of York, was wrecked in 1899. The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Hill lighthouses remain today. The Wadjemup lighthouse was opened to the public on November 2nd, 2005, tours are held daily.


Rottnest Island has played a military role in both World War I and World War II and has also had post-war training functions. Two Military heritage trails are the Bickley Battery Heritage Trail and the Oliver Hill Heritage Trail which give visitors a full appreciation of the newly restored Bickley Battery 6-inch guns which were an integral part of the defence of the Port of Fremantle during WWII and a massive 9.2 inch diameter gun at Oliver Hill.

Aboriginal Burial Ground_01_11

Read the interpretation at the Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground and take a moment to sit and reflect on the sad time in history when Rottnest Island was used as an Aboriginal penal settlement. The Rottnest Foundation is currently seeking funding to enable the appropriate repair and recognition of this site.


The excursion steam ferry 'Manx Fairy', later rebuilt and renamed 'Westralian', off to Rottnest, 1905.

Also view of South Perth, including the Mill and jetty.

Image from the State Library of WA.

Convict Voyage 

The Aboriginal name for Rottnest is Wadjemup which roughly translates as “place across the water”. This refers to the 18 kilometres of Indian Ocean that separate Rottnest from the West Australian mainland. This was an untraversable distance for the local Indigenous people (known as the Nyungar). Although Rottnest was not inhabited by the Nyungar before they were transported there as convicts, the island was central to their culture through its connection with the Dreaming. The first Europeans to record landing on the island were the Dutch crew of the Waekende Boeij (Watching Boy) under the command of Samuel Volkerson in 1658.  It was another Dutch naval commander, Willem de Vlamingh, who named the island Rottnest (Rat’s nest) in 1696 after mistaking the large numbers of quokkas there for rodents.  The British who claimed the island as their territory when they established a settlement on the mainland at Swan River in 1829.

Rottnest 1

The island received its first shipment of prisoners in August 1838 when Constable Lawrence Welch brought 10 Aboriginal prisoners over by rowing boat.  Without proper accommodation, the convicts spent their first months on the island sheltering in a cave tied to a tree, while their gaolers sought shelter in the outbuildings belonging to the sole occupants of the island, the Thomson family.  In September 6 convicts escaped by rowboat after setting fire to the tree they were manacled to at night.  Henry Vincent was transferred from Fremantle Prison, where he worked as a warder, to become Superintendent of Rottnest in 1839. He came with instructions for the convicts to begin constructing prison buildings to ensure better security at night.  In 1841 an Act was passed to institute Rottnest a legal prison primarily “for the confinement of Aboriginal offenders.”  The Act stressed that the isolation of the island would prevent the Indigenous convicts from escaping (which they were more successful at than their European counterparts). This would allow them to be work on the island unfettered to roam and hunt about the island in their free time.  There were concerns at the high death rates among Indigenous prisoners across the colony at large, which they hoped increased freedoms at Rottnest would remedy.

In the 1840s most of Rottnest’s convicts came from the immediate vicinity of the coast south of Fremantle, and a small cluster west of Albany.  As the settlement frontier pushed northwards Rottnest’s inmates came from further and further afield in Western Australia. Western Australia encompassed a third of Australia’s entire landmass, so many Indigenous convicts were transported over hundreds of kilometres on foot and by ship. These land and sea routes can be seen in the map below. On these journeys the Indigenous prisoners were often scantily clad, or even naked, and chained around the neck, arms and legs.  An Indigenous prisoner known as Benjamin described how he walked naked for over 700 km between Eyre Sand Patch to Albany with a bullock chain around his neck. All these routes took convicts to Fremantle, where they would be held at Round House Prison awaiting a boat, and good enough weather, to be transported by pilot boat or steamer to Rottnest’s Thomson Bay.

Inland Transportation Routes
Inland Transportation Routes

The places in which Rottnest’s convicts were arrested mirror the movement of settlers from the coastline into the interior of Western Australia.  Brought up against an occupying force who were often violent towards them, Indigenous people responded with resistance.  Such acts of frontier warfare became criminalised as “murder” or “assault”. For these actions Indigenous people were held accountable in a court of law far more often than their European counterparts. The majority of Nyungar people who were sentenced to death for these crimes had their sentences commuted to imprisonment on Rottnest Island.  The British also criminalised certain aspects of Indigenous politics, including spearing to kill or in the leg as retribution for former wrongs. More often the prisoners on Rottnest had been convicted for misunderstanding or not recognising European claims to territory and livestock. An inmate on Rottnest named Brandy said: “I came here for killing a sheep. I saw the sheep had strayed, and my woman said “kill it,” and I did so.” During the second half of the nineteenth century several acts were passed to make it easier to sentence Indigenous people to longer sentences of imprisonment, alongside corporal punishment such as flogging.  In the 1850s most prisoners on Rottnest were sentenced to one year or less, by the 1880s the majority were were serving one year or more. For example, Mullong and Billy received 2-year sentences to Rottnest for the minor crime of petty theft in August 1876.  At trial Indigenous people were severely disadvantaged. Not only were they were being tried by a European judge and jury forcing them to communicate through an interpreter, they usually did not understand the system of justice. It was not uncommon for Indigenous people to confess to spearing a sheep belong to a certain settler, simply because they had done so in the past.

Initially Rottnest was envisioned as an institution to train Indigenous individuals in cultivation and farming in the hopes they might become field hands for Europeans on their release.  So convicts spent most of their time clearing land to grow wheat and barley.  In 1842 around a third of the convicts were labouring hard carrying quarried stone and digging the foundations for a new lighthouse.  In the same year the convict-run salt works produced 3708 tons of salt which was shipped to the mainland on the same ship that had transported them.  Just as Western Australia accepted the need for convict labour from elsewhere in the British Empire, Rottnest’s convicts were called upon to leave the island and work in gangs building the southern road to Albany and Perth prison from 1850-55.  The new batch of convicts to arrive at Rottnest worked tasks similar to their 1840s predecessors.  As prison numbers swelled, a number of significant building projects were completed by convicts. This included the construction of a holiday residence for the Governor, known as Government House and a new octagonal prison building (known as the Quod), in 1864. A new salt works with chimney stack followed 5 years later.  However, despite successful crop yields and improved salt production Rottnest was a costly prison to run. From the 1880s there were frequent calls in the legislative council and the local press to close down Rottnest and work the Aboriginal convicts locally instead, as they had done between 1850 and 1855. In 1890 it was proposed that Rottnest’s prisoners be employed in dredging the entrance to Swan River, to create harbour, and repaid the road between Perth and Fremantle. However, this suggestion was rejected because it would involve working the convicts in chains, which sat uneasily with prevailing humanitarian views.

Rottnest 3

By the 1890s Rottnest was failing to keep up with its running costs thanks to declining prison population and depleted soil.  The island had long served as a summer resort for the incumbent Governor of Western Australia and his family and friends. As gold rush money poured into Western Australia the legislative council argued that it was time to open Rottnest up to the general public as a holiday destination. On 27 September 1894, the member for Fremantle, Elias Solomon, forwarded a motion at the legislative assembly to end transportation to Rottnest and open it instead as a holiday destination for the public. The Premier John Forrest was concerned that the lack of infrastructure on the island would discourage tourism and felt unconvinced of a proper alternative for the Indigenous prisoners. As a compromise, the prison was kept open but it was noted in the minutes for that session that “ it is desirable that the island should be thrown open to the public, as a place of summer resort and recreation”.

Rottnest 2

The prison stayed upon for almost another decade, but was finally closed as a prison in 1903. Oddly, in January the following year it was declared a penal outstation as an annex of Fremantle Gaol.  Most of the original occupants were released or transferred to prisons elsewhere, leaving behind 18 prisoners, mostly elderly or unfit for heavy labour elsewhere.  Along with a number of Europeans prisoners who were shipped in, the inmates were tasked with maintenance work for the new tourist industry on the island.  In this capacity a number continued to be detained there until 1931.  Rottnest was destined to serve as a prison again – for German and Austrian internees in the World War I and for Italian prisoners of war in World War II.

At regular intervals in Rottnest’s 60 years as a prison, deaths in custody sparked inquiries into the poor treatment of the Aboriginal inmates.  In 1840 Guardian of Aborigines Charles Symmons and Prosecutor George Fletcher Moore investigated the death of 3 convicts.  They noted inadequate clothing, poor rations and threadbare blankets.  In 1846 Superintendent Henry Vincent was investigated (and acquitted) after allegations were made that he had murdered and buried a number of Indigenous prisoners, as well as ripped off part of an ear of an inmate named Charlie. Twenty years later his son’s violent behaviour as Assistant Warden came under scrutiny.  William was implicated in the suspicious death of an elderly inmate named Dehan in 1865.  Several people testified that the superintendent’s son, William Vincent, beat Dehan in the face with a set of keys.  Dehan was found dead the next morning – less than a month after arriving on the island.  Henry Vincent and his son tried to cover up the assault by burying the prisoner quickly.  When the body was exhumed by order of the governor a full week later, the doctor ruled the cause of death as disease of the lung.  Nevertheless, William Vincent’s brutal attack on an old man was considered sufficient breach of duty to receive a sentence of 3 months hard labour.  Yet, only apathy towards the fate of the surviving Aboriginal prisoners can explain why further inquiry was not made into the superintendent that condoned this kind of violence.

It was the unnecessary deaths of Indigenous convicts – in the plural this time – that prompted a second inquiry into Rottnest in 1883.  In August of that year an epidemic of influenza broke out at the prison.  Indigenous convicts were not supplied with spare uniforms, if they were supplied with any at all, so they often went to bed in damp clothes with thin blankets and no fireplaces to warm them.  With the onset of a wet winter, these conditions became deadly – claiming the lives of more than 50 men. While the commission was investigating Rottnest, 100 convicts fell ill with a measles epidemic that was ravaging the colony at large. These diseases sped rapidly as extreme overcrowding left 4 Aboriginal convicts sharing small cells, with an average sleeping space just 60 cm wide. A correspondent for The Perth Daily News described how ‘prisoners at night are packed away in their cells like sardines in a box, having to lie down head to feet alternately to make room.’ The Forrest Inquiry delved deep into the daily life on the island and concluded that confinement was preferable to being worked in irons in the colony, but that health must be improved. They recommended the introduction of sanitary regimes, including shaving the hair and beards of convicts upon arrival, regular bathing with soap, and provision of uniforms. The latter stopped disease spreading through convicts swapping clothes, as a ceremony for welcome new arrivals. It also gave convicts a dry set of warmer clothes to change into when they got wet or dirty. The commission also suggested the construction of new buildings, t re-allocation of cells within the ‘Quod’ and the construction of a hospital ward to ease overcrowding. However, in 1896 a further commission still found the quod inadequate for housing convicts, describing cells as draughty and cold. A contributing factor to the sickness of many was the psychological trauma of being separated from their homeland and their communities. Henry Trigg described how “The prisoners will sit down and weep most bitterly…when they see the smoke from the fires’ from their homes on the mainland. Over the course of 79 years as an Aboriginal prison Rottnest claimed the lives of around 373 men. A further 25 died whilst serving their sentences or being transported to Rottnest on the mainland, bringing the total up to around 400.

As a tourist attraction, Rottnest Island has struggled to engage with its heritage as a site of Aboriginal suffering and incarceration. On 10 March 1988, 200 Aboriginal people landed on the island to protest the neglect of the graves of Indigenous prisoners on the island. In December 1990 ground penetrating radar was used to identify the most likely site of the Aboriginal cemetery. Two years later the area was fenced off and left to return to its natural state. Signs erected to inform the public of its significance and to inform them not to trespass. In 1992 a proposal put forward by the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority to erect a memorial and interpretation centre near the cemetery was rejected by The State Advisory Council. It is now believed that there is at least another Aboriginal graveyard that has yet to be cordoned off. The prison quod has been converted into luxury accommodation, with each “room” in Rottnest Lodge made up of three cells knocked together. Neville Green compared it to turning Auschwitz into holiday cottages. As of 2014, across the island and in the museum there are interpretation boards about the island’s history as a prison. Much of the historical commemoration, including the naming of streets and buildings are named, focuses on colonial administrators and prison staff rather than for the Indigenous people who were incarcerated there.

Despite a number of surviving colonial prison buildings, Rottnest is not advertised to tourists as a historical convict site in the same way that Fremantle and other UNESCO heritage sites are. Glen Stasiuk has argued that the prison should become a historically-interpreted site for tourists in his 2015 documentary Wadjemup: Black Prison White Playground. Although every Indigenous Western Australian alive today will have a descendant who was sent to Rottnest, it is not visited by vast numbers of Nyoongar people to remember the tragedy. Increased collaboration with Indigenous communities since 2007 mean that the possible roles of the island for Nyoongar descendants, as well as for the general public, are being explored, The Rottnest Island Authority’s Reconciliation Action Plan, that spanned 2012-2015, stressed a new focus on Aboriginal culture and history. This included exhibitions and performances by contemporary Nyoongar artists, acknowledgement to island as land belonging to the Whadjuk Nyoongar people and emphasis on the Dreaming on materials provided to school children. However, the plan focussed primary on the pre-settlement history of Rottnest. This is less problematic from a heritage perspective than reminding visitors of its history as a prison. The majority of 500,000 visitors to Rottnest every year are non-Indigenous Western Australians. Many of these visitors would find it uncomfortable to be reminded of some of the worst excesses of settler colonialism. In January 2015 it was announced that the old prison was being closed as tourist accommodation, and was being redeveloped as an interpretation centre, with input from the Indigenous community.

Further Reading

R.J. Ferguson, Rottnest Island, History and Architecture (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1986).

Peter Randolph, Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prisoners Cemetery (Perth: Department of Aboriginal Sites, 1993).

Neville Green and Susan Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal prisoners of Rottnest Island (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1997).

Stasiuk, Glen, Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as Black Prison and White Playground(Murdoch University, Documentary and accompanying PhD Exegesis, 2015).

Edward Jack Watson, Rottnest: Its tragedy and glory (Bicton: W.A., Daniel L. Watson, 1998).

Online Resources

History of the Nyoongar People,

Rottnest Island Authority – Our History,

Rottnest Foundation,

The Quod Project,

Storylines – State Library of WA,

Aboriginal Records – State Record Office of WA,


Rottnest Aboriginal Prison

Rottnest Aboriginal Prison
Aboriginal prisoners in The Quod - hundreds died of disease, malnutrition or were beaten to death by guards


An Island in Denial

I sleep uneasily tonight in Western Australia’s premier tourist destination where − unknown to most visitors − hundreds of terrified Aboriginal prisoners from every part of the state suffered and died in unimaginably brutal squalor.

I dream of lawyers and police, knowing from official WA Government archives that the thick limestone walls around my cramped hotel bedroom conceal a dark history of violent horror and abuse. A blocked second doorway and the faint mark of a former dividing wall reveal my premium twin-share unit (pictured on right) was once two cells, each 3m by 1.7m – less than the size of a small family car – and my adjoining bathroom a third cell. In each tiny cell slept seven prisoners, huddled shivering on the cold, damp limestone floor with no room to move, no toilet bucket, a tiny slit high in the rear wall to admit light and a windy gap under the cell door for air. I think of this as I try to sleep, wondering if their ghosts still inhabit this dreadful place.

One in 10 prisoners who slept here died of disease, malnourishment or was bashed to death by prison guards. Others were flogged with lead-weighted whips or chained across a raised iron bar for punishment. Prisoners were lined up in the central courtyard and collapsed in shock when forced to watch five condemned men hanged, their bodies carted to a nearby dump and buried in unmarked graves. At least 370 Aboriginal prisoners are buried nearby, each wrapped in the filthy blanket in which they died and seated – according to custom­ – facing east to greet the rising sun over the land of their ancestors. I think of this too as I walk at dawn over the nation’s biggest unmarked burial ground, a neglected wasteland in Western Australia’s premier holiday resort − Rottnest Island.

One in 10 who slept here died of disease, malnutrition or was bashed to death by prison guards

From WA Government archives

Thousands of visitors flock to this Indian Ocean tourist paradise year-round. Luxury cruisers from Perth’s wealthy western suburbs jam its sheltered bays in summer and island visitor accommodation is costly and scarce, even in winter. A wild week on “Rotto” after final exams is an annual right of passage for thousands of West Australian “schoolies”. I first visited Rottnest with two Year 11 classmates in 1966. We camped with scores of others in Tentland, between The Settlement and The Basin – the island’s popular swimming hole. Tentland was still thriving in 1974 when I shared a nearby cottage with three other young adults. We rode bikes past the busy campsite to swim at The Basin, never imagining that just below where I slept as an innocent 15-year-old lay the bodies of hundreds of Aboriginal men who died in brutal captivity.

It was not until last May, on my third annual Rottnest winter holiday, that I discovered the full extent of this island’s shameful past. At the back of the island’s small museum ­are photographs of Rottnest’s early history as an Aboriginal prison. One shows two rows of prisoners (pictured) in front of their cells − including the one in which I now sleep. Their faces reflect grim despair. Aboriginal prison labour under extreme cruelty and miserable conditions built most of the island’s popular heritage landmarks, including Government House (now Rottnest’s biggest hotel), Hay Store (museum), Church, Salt Store, original waterfront cottages and The Quod ­– a notorious eight-sided jail in which at least 370 Aboriginal men died, their cells now occupied by laughing tourists oblivious to the past horror of their surroundings.
‘Aboriginal people don’t come here because
it’s a sad place for us’

Wadjuk elder Noel Nannup, on
why many Aboriginal families
shun Rottnest Island
From there, I walk to the Salt Store, where a “Reconciliation Week” photographic display shows Aboriginal forced labour at the former saltworks and symbolic efforts to heal the past. When I ask volunteer guide Bob Chapman for more information about the prison, he disappears into a small office behind a partition and returns with a thick file of old papers in a battered manila folder. “It’s all in here,” he says, inviting me to sit and read a 30-year-old collection of photocopied reports, book extracts and typewritten manuscripts. As I turn the pages of the “Aboriginal Prisons File”, my two-week Rottnest idyll changes from relaxation to incredulity, and growing awareness of an island in denial.
It begins when I ask another volunteer guide in The Settlement why there are not more signs to inform visitors about the prison and what really happened. “Some people think there are too many heritage plaques already, so there aren’t any more,” she says. Later, I notice an Aboriginal man near the shops, and it strikes me that I don’t recall ever seeing an Aboriginal person on Rottnest before. It’s Wadjuk elder Noel Nannup from the island’s new Wadjemup bus tours that offer tourists a glimpse of local Aboriginal history, culture and connection to country.

“Aboriginal people don’t come here because it’s a sad place for us,’ he says quietly. “There are many Aboriginal men buried here from all over Western Australia. Our families remember what happened. We don’t dwell on the past but we don’t gloss over it.” He explains that Wadjemup is the Nyoongar name for Rottnest and means “land over the sea where the spirits of the dead go” ­– a place of powerful significance for many Aboriginal people. Salt Store records quote Perth elder Ken Colbung as saying Rottnest Prison was a double punishment for South-West Nyoongars because the “Island of Spirit People” was also a “Winnaitch” - a forbidden place.
Rottnest Prison was double punishment because the ‘Island of Spirit People’ across the water was also a ‘Winnaitch’ - a forbidden place

Perth elder Ken Colbung
The Wadjemup bus tour takes 90 minutes and traverses the island with stories about local plants, animals and sea creatures, and explains that Nyoongars lived here 7,000 years ago when Rottnest was part of the mainland. The tour’s motto is “No guilt, no blame” but passengers are invited to pause for a moment’s silence in a shady paperbark grove in the centre of the island to hear the wind sighing through the trees and reflect on the impact dark stone cells had on Aboriginal men who once roamed free under open skies. Noel Nannup says Aboriginal women on the mainland lit fires on the far shore for prisoners to see across the water and would “talk to the whales, asking them to bring their men home”. On our way back, the distinctive Wadjemup bus with a bright blue whale (pictured below right) painted on each side doesn’t go anywhere near the Aboriginal burial ground, which is my next stop.
The burial ground was strewn with empty bottles and cans, toilet paper, building rubble
and the rotting remains of a dead quokka
Every visit is now a sad shock. On my first trip in May, a temporary hessian fence, a heritage plaque and a wooden sign bordered a sandy wasteland where the earliest graves are known to lie. The ground was littered with empty cans and bottles, scraps of building rubble, toilet paper and the rotting remains of a dead quokka ­– a small marsupial found everywhere on Rottnest Island. Holiday-makers rode bikes over a sandy track through the middle, disregarding a sign to “please respect this area”. In a wooded grove formerly occupied by Tentland, several trees were marked with white crosses. A half-full beer bottle lay on a log next to a discarded can of rum and cola.
Another temporary hessian fence round a nearby demolition site bore a WA Government notice that read: “The Aboriginal Burial Ground is Under Repair. Rottnest Island was a native prison from 1838 to 1931. Thousands of Aboriginal leaders and warriors were imprisoned on the island during this period and more than 370 remain in the Burial Ground in the largest unmarked Burial Ground in Australia. PLEASE RESPECT THIS SACRED PLACE AT ALL TIMES”. A detailed map showed landscaped gardens, an “entrance look-out and shelter”, a viewing terrace”, “sculptural sentinels” and “reflection spaces”.
Plans for Australia's "largest unmarked burial ground"
- but nothing has been done
When I return five months later, the fences and wooden sign have gone and a new metal plaque erected - bigger but harder to read from afar - and island workers and visitors (pictured right) still use the sandy wasteland as a shortcut from The Settlement shops to nearby workers’ cottages and The Basin. The Aboriginal display at the Salt Store has also gone ­­– it went when Reconciliation Week ended. The Settlement is now swarming with primary school children on organised excursions but when I buy another Wadjemup bus tour, I am the only passenger. My handwritten ticket is issued at the Visitor Centre by a young worker who marks it "aboliginal tour”.
‘It is quite probable the curse of drink, together with the supplanting of black children by mixed races, will eventually cause them to die out’
Book on sale to tourists in new Rottnest Island Museum shop
I gatecrash a small group of “heritage” guests on a WA Government tour to explain new plans for the island. The island’s post office and souvenir shop closed in June and part of the museum has been turned into a gift shop to “commercialise” operations. The manager of Rottnest’s monopoly bicycle hire shop is now also new manager of the Rottnest Island Museum Shop. She admits she’s never been on the Wadjemup tour, which is touted by the WA Government as a showpiece of local Aboriginal reconciliation. A Government official explains that the museum’s integrity is secure because every item sold will first be vetted by the Rottnest Island Authority.
On prominent display in the new shop is a 2007 reprint of a 1901 booklet by John G. Withnell: “The Customs and Traditions of the Australian Natives of North Western Australia”. It begins: “Most of the young men being in the employment of the whites prefer to imitate them, caring little or nothing for their elders’ teachings. So it is merely a matter of time when they become extinct. It is quite probable that the curse of drink, together with the supplanting of black children by mixed races, will eventually cause them to die out, for it is reasonable to suppose that few intellectual persons will find companionship in the natives, so they merely gain the evil part of the European element from those who do associate closely with them”. The shop is filled with curious Asian and European tourists, and parties of primary school children and teachers queue outside to enter. I buy Withnell’s book and stash it in my bag.
Up to 167 Aboriginal prisoners at a time were locked in The Quod’s 29 tiny cells
WA historians Neville Green
and Susan Moon
Most of the Government’s museum tour is occupied by detailed discussion of the building’s architecture and plans to link the museum to the nearby General Store, across a narrow laneway filled with rubbish bins and forklift pallets. Noel Nannup is there too and says: “We’d rather see the museum restored to its original state as a hay store and mill. Aboriginal prisoners built this place and worked in it. We feel entitled to have a say but I don’t know if anyone will listen.”
The tour is all about “interpretation”, ‘interaction”, “awareness” and “story telling” ­– the modern bureaucratic jargon of Aboriginal reconciliation. Earlier, at a “Cleansing and Welcome” ceremony on the beach in which everyone is invited to throw handfuls of sand into the water, a white woman turns to me and says: “It’s such a privilege to be here”. When I ask why, she points to a nearby pelican feeding in the shallows.
Many Aboriginal prisoners spoke no English or each others’ languages − ‘they would have been terrified’
Noel Nannup, on
Battye Library records
The tour group walks a short way to Lomas Cottage, just 20 paces from Australia’s biggest unmarked burial site. The cottage contains photographs of Aboriginal prisoners hunting with spears on a Sunday, when they received no prison rations and had to find their own food among the island’s wildlife. Two photographs show tall men from the north marked with initiation scars and white ochre painted on their arms, legs and torsos. Another shows a small group of Nyoongars in drab prison garb (pictured) slumped around a dismal campfire. “They look sad, don’t they,” says Noel Nannup sitting quietly in a corner of the small room, gazing up at his ancestors on the far wall. Nobody else seems to notice, and soon the group is off again for the Salt Store, then lunch and more plans at Kingston Barracks. Nobody notices the sandy wasteland to their right, where 370 Aboriginal men are buried and forgotten.
Government records in Western Australia’s Battye Library detail the appalling death rate and savage brutality meted out to many of the island’s 3,670 Aboriginal prisoners between 1841 and 1903. In “The grim years ­– 1855-1902” from their book "Far From Home - Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island 1838-1931", historians Neville Green and Susan Moon write that up to 167 prisoners at a time were jammed into the Quod’s 28 tiny cells. Government records show some prisoners were as young as eight years and others in their seventies. As white settlement spread outwards from the expanding Swan River Colony, Rottnest’s prison population swelled correspondingly. Aboriginal prisoners were often shackled by the neck and ankles in heavy iron chains and marched hundreds of kilometres overland for transfer to Rottnest Island. Men and boys from vastly different country with different languages, dialects and customs were all lumped together. Many spoke no English and could not speak each others’ languages. “They would have been terrified,” Noel Nannup says.
Prisoners lay cold and wet surrounded by excrement on damp stone floors as deadly influenza raged through their draughty cells
From State archives
Aboriginal men from as far as the Gascoyne, Fitzroy River and the Kimberley arrived up to 20 at a time, shivering in chains in an open boat, cold, wet and seasick, clad only in thin blankets. Many were tribal warriors and clan leaders who had borne the brunt of settlement frontier conflict and were often jailed for pay-back killings or stealing food when their traditional hunting lands were forcibly removed. They had no immunity to influenza, measles, mumps and whooping cough, all introduced diseases that decimated weakened men held in close confinement with no sanitation, proper food or dry clothing. Many suffered pneumonia, scurvy, eczema and dysentery as they lay wet and shivering in threadbare blankets on cold stone floors, constantly damp in winter from being flushed out daily with buckets of cold water to remove overnight faeces and urine. Government records show that carrots, parsnips mangel-wurzel, beetroot, turnips and potatoes from the Prison Superintendent’s garden were fed to horses and pigs, sold to warders or thrown away. Aboriginal prisoners got only bread, meat, rice, tea and sugar, except on Sundays when they got nothing.
Prisoners were forced to straddle an iron bar attached to a chain ‘making it impossible to lie down or even sit comfortably’
Report by visiting JPs, Battye Library
The stench from the jail’s open cesspit was so nauseating that Chief Warder Adam Oliver complained to an 1884 Government inquiry headed by Surveyor-General (later Premier) John Forrest that the “offensive air” was permeating his quarters and ruining the health of his wife and four children. In winter, prisoners lay cold and wet surrounded by excrement on damp stone floors as deadly influenza raged through their draughty cells. Oliver told the inquiry there was no truth to newspaper reports that pigs were raking up the bodies of dead prisoners, although Master Carpenter John Watson said he had seen pigs in the cemetery. The Chief Warder also said he believed the treatment of prisoners was “humane and kind, with the exception of the deficiency of clothing during the winter”. I think of this as I try to sleep in one of their cells.
The prison’s first and worst prison superintendent was a man now widely revered on Rottnest Island. Henry Vincent was a British veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and lost an eye in the Battle of Waterloo. West Australian journalist and author Trea Wiltshire describes Vincent in “Gone to Rottnest” as arriving in the colony with a reputation as “a severe disciplinarian”. Official records show he was barely literate. No records were kept for cause of death of the first 203 prisoners to die on Rottnest Island. Being separated from the mainland by a perilous journey in an open long boat gave Vincent licence to do much as he pleased. He punished prisoners with the cat o’ nine tails without authority and was ordered after a surprise visit by mainland JPs to cease restraining “troublesome prisoners” by forcing them to straddle an iron bar attached to a chain “making it impossible to lie down or even sit comfortably”.
Vincent killed and buried two Aboriginal prisoners without anyone’s knowledge, and tore the ear off another with his fingers
Sworn evidence to official inquiry
In evidence to an inquiry ordered in 1846 by colonial Governor John Hutt, British soldier Samuel Mottram reportedly claimed on oath to have been told by overseer Joseph Morris that Vincent killed and buried two Aboriginal prisoners without anyone’s knowledge. Private John Williams swore on oath that he saw part of an Aboriginal prisoner’s ear on the ground. Private Thomas Longworth said he saw Vincent “pull the ear rather severely, and then shaking his fingers, as if to throw something away off his hands, wipe his fingers on his trousers”. Later, he saw the prisoner “with the gristly part of one ear wanting”.
“Two men were beaten to death here,” says Noel Nannup as the Wadjemup bus tour passes a limestone quarry used to build The Settlement. Later, as we walk past the island’s popular bakery, he pauses by an old Moreton Bay fig tree (pictured above right) and says: “An old man was beaten to death just here,” pointing to the spot. “I can feel it.” It’s hard to know if this is true because there are no official records for the cause of death of hundreds of Aboriginal prisoners who died here. But it is impossible to dispute my tour guide’s claim that “Vincent was a brute, he was a shocking man”.
A sick 60-year-old Aboriginal prisoner on his knees was bashed twice in the face with iron keys, kicked unconscious on the floor and died
From State archives
In one recorded incident in 1865, a sick 60-year-old Aboriginal prisoner was bashed twice in the face with a bunch of iron keys while on his knees for refusing to leave his cell. He rolled to the floor, was kicked unconscious and died that night in his cell. A post-mortem found the prisoner died of “lung disease” but Henry Vincent’s son, William ­– who was Assistant Superintendent – was convicted of assault and sentenced to three months’ hard labour in the Police stables before later getting a job as a police officer. Most islanders, including Rottnest Island Pilot Captain (later Island Superintendent) William Jackson, reportedly believed Henry Vincent killed the elderly Aboriginal prisoner and that William took the blame to shield his father.
Despite his record of callous brutality, Henry Vincent is venerated as an island pioneer and builder on many of The Settlement’s heritage plaques. Vincent’s name takes pride of place over a big fireplace in the popular Governor’s Bar on an annual Henry Vincent golf trophy with a brass inscription that honours him for building The Settlement. Rottnest Island’s official website invites visitors “to learn about the island’s rich cultural history” by walking the “Vincent Way Heritage Trail”.
‘Some even picked up skulls and ran away with them’
Official report on bodies
unearthed in 1962
But Australia’s biggest unmarked burial ground remains unrecognised and neglected. I walk back from Lomas House with a Government officer who says money is the problem. The island is expected to pay for itself but many see heritage protection as a state-wide issue, particularly when it comes to healing the wounds inflicted on Aboriginal people imprisoned here from every part of the state. The Government’s official response appears to be much talk but little action.
Sewerage works to extend the golf course in 1970 unearthed 12 skeletons in a grove of pine trees near the Quod. Island Manager Des Sullivan reported to the Rottnest Island Board on 19 June 1970 that the sewer was raised about 1.5m to clear the top of the bodies and the discovery hushed up “as this might have encouraged vandals to desecrate the graves”. In a 1979 interview, Mr Sullivan said he felt there might be hundreds more bodies in the area. However, it was not until 1985 that the State Government’s Aboriginal Sites Department formally recorded the burial ground and its rough location. After a big protest meeting on Rottnest in 1988, the Government conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey to establish the likely extent of the burial ground but Aboriginal representatives objected to test holes being dug to confirm the results.
The sewer was raised 1.5m to clear the top of the bodies
and the discovery hushed up
1970, when more bodies were unearthed
In 1992, the State Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority budgeted $400,000 to help build a commemorative centre and memorial near the burial ground. The State Advisory Council of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Council (ATSIC) was asked to contribute another $400,000 and help fund annual costs of $200,000 for staff and maintenance. ATSIC refused and the project lapsed. In June 1994, WA Premier Richard Court acknowledged to another state-wide gathering of Aboriginal representatives on Rottnest Island that the site was the largest death-in-custody burial ground in Western Australia. However, nothing was done.
Neville Green speculates that “very few societies in the world would convert to tourist accommodation prison cells in which an estimated 287 people died in miserable conditions thousands of kilometres from their homelands and families. It is comparable to transforming (Nazi Germany’s) Auschwitz concentration camp into holiday cottages. Tourists and well as the general public should be made aware of the fact that many men died in the holiday units of the Quod.”
‘It is comparable to transforming Auschwitz concentration camp
into holiday cottages’
Historian Neville Green on The Quod
A guest information folder in my former prison cell says “Henry Vincent built the octagonal shaped quod in 1838. Authorities were worried because Indigenous Australians in captivity back on the Mainland were fretting and dying and thought Rottnest might be a good alternative. Each cell contained up to 5-7 prisoners at one time”. No mention that each twin-share unit was actually three cells holding a total of 21 men who slept on a damp, cold stone floor with no toilet, that five men were hanged in the courtyard and at least 370 prisoners died from disease and beatings.
The Rottnest Island Authority’s 2008-09 annual report shows $450,000 earmarked for “Aboriginal reconciliation and economic development” over the next five years with funding from the “RIA budget and external sources”. In a 128-page Management Plan 2009-2014 subtitled “Revitalised and Moving Forward”, Western Australia’s Minister for Tourism, Liz Constable, says “The Island must pay for itself. Western Australian holidays cannot be subsidised by the Government.” Page 45 shows the same burial ground map that disappeared with the hessian fence next to the site. Page 46 says: “Repair and interpretation of the Aboriginal Burial Ground is a major project which is seen as a high priority reconciliation initiative of international significance and an economic driver for tourism.” And finally, in small print in brackets at the end of “Part 5 Aboriginal Reconciliation” under “Initiative 8 ­– Aboriginal reconciliation and economic opportunities for Aboriginal people” comes the punch-line: “Burial Ground interpretation requires external funding”. More jargon, obfuscation, buck-passing and inaction.
‘Authorities were worried because Indigenous Australians in captivity back on the Mainland were fretting and dying and thought Rottnest might be a good alternative’
Quod accommodation guest information
I email questions to the Rottnest Island Authority but staff are distracted by the tragic death the previous day of a child crushed when a brick pillar collapsed on a hammock at an island holiday cottage. There are public calls for all similar rental accommodation to close for safety fears on the eve of schoolies week, one of the busiest times of the year for island traders. Journalists, photographers and TV crews descend on Rottnest to interview and photograph grieving relatives and friends, police, ambulance officers, island officials and anyone else they can grab for interview while a media helicopter hovers over the accident scene. Noel Nannup is sympathetic too but points out that a similar tragedy in which an Aboriginal child was electrocuted three weeks earlier while playing in a Government house with no safety wiring attracted only fleeting public interest. “That’s the way it always is for Aboriginal people,” he says.
‘The island must pay for itself’
WA Tourism Minister Liz Constable
In his 1937 memoir “Rottnest – Its Tragedy And Its Glory”, Edward Jack (Ned) Watson writes: “Tonight I stood in the moonlight with my two boys at the foot of a large cypress tree that marks the spot where the body of Wanjibiddi was buried. With almost clairvoyant vision I could again see the large circle of cobblestone wall enclosing the graveyard; I could see all around me the familiar faces of Mangrove, Chillibabong, Matchikee and others. They are still sitting there wrapped in grey blankets with their faces towards the rising sun. In this attitude they were placed by their comrades who buried them over fifty years ago. About 70 skeletons are buried where the camper now pitches his tent or lights his outdoor fire. They are only four feet below the sand.”
Before I return to the mainland just a half-hour ferry ride away, I pay one last visit to Australia’s biggest unmarked burial ground and gaze with the morning sun behind me across the sandy tract scuffed by bicycle tyre tracks and footprints. I see two rows of Aboriginal men staring grimly from the prison photograph and wonder how many of them might now be looking back at me from their sandy graves just below the ground.
Later, as sea spray whips my face on the bumpy ferry ride back to Fremantle, I think about the ironic injustice of Henry Vincent’s legacy and the fact that despite nearly 50 years of government research, reports, meetings and promises, at least 370 Aboriginal prisoners still lie largely forgotten in unmarked graves in the middle of the state’s most popular holiday destination. And I think of Wadjuk elder Noel Nannup in his empty Wadjemup bus, fighting a lone battle each day to win recognition and respect for his forgotten ancestors. Nothing much, it seems, has changed in 171 years.
© 2009 Michael Sinclair-Jones except for “Welcome to Rottnest” by Sally Morgan (permission granted for use) and prisoner photographs courtesy State Library of Western Australia (Battye Library 20982P & 694B/2). Quod drawing based on PWD Plan 149 traced in 1928 from 1876 sketch by Richard Jewell.

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Event date / locationEvent typeTitle / summaryVenue / hostPublication link
2021.02 Rottnest Island Thrill ride: Jet Boat extreme fun Thrill boat ride fbk grp wa tourism - video 
2020.11.14 Applecross Swan river twilight sunset sail  free outings with members South of Perth Yacht Club fbk page - pic vid 
2020.09.25 Perth cbd swan rover new floating pub  The Raft fbk page 
2020.10.27 South Perth day adventure History the tram  Ferry Tram Museum fbk group wa tourism 
2020.10.03 South Perth Sunset river walk  Mindeerup Piazza fbk page pics  
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