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Invasion, incarceration and ignorance: Rottnest Island’s dark history

Famous for its beloved native quokkas, Rottnest Island is known as a premium holiday destination, just 19 kilometres from the coast of Perth. While the island now boasts luxury weekend escapes and natural tourist attractions, Rottnest Island has a lesser-known horrific past. 

Rottnest Island, also known as Wadjemup by its traditional owners, the Whadjuk Noongar people, is a sacred indigenous resting place connecting life and death. Translating to ‘place across the water where the spirits are’, the island was home to the Whadjuk Noongar people for close to 50,000 years. Originally connected to the Western Australian mainland, Rottnest Island was only separated by rising sea levels approximately 7000 years ago. Uninhabited due to the Whadjuk Noongar people’s lack of boats, the island continued to be a culturally significant and spiritual place, and its importance was passed down through generations via oral storytelling. 

European observation of Rottnest Island began in the early 1600s; however, it wasn’t until 1658 when Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boey landed on the island’s north. Further exploration of the island didn’t occur until 1696, when Dutch Captain Willem de Vlamingh spent six days traversing the island’s many beaches, ecosystems and unique flora and fauna. He encountered the native quokka and mistook them for giant rats, thus naming the island ‘‘t Eylandt ‘t Rottenest’, which translates to ‘Rats’ Nest Island’, this would later become Rottnest Island. The Dutch never claimed Australia, so the devastation faced by the Whadjuk Noongar people didn’t begin until British settlement at the Swan River Colony, now Perth, in 1829.

The Whadjuk Noongar people were suddenly pushed off their land by British invasion. Settlement saw natural water supplies cut off, vegetation, medicinal plants and animals all dwindled for the traditional owners of the land – marginalising them and destroying their very livelihood. The Whadjuk Noongar people and the British colonists governed their lives with a very different set of laws and values. While the British practiced ownership of the land, the Whadjuk Noongar people were one with the land. As such, the British used force against the Whadjuk Noongar people and imprisoned them for dealing with the impacts that the invasion had had on their very way of life – from hunting to sacred traditions, to a total erasure of food sources and medicinal plants. They were considered criminals for theft or trespassing on things that were, to them, seen as communal. 

This miscommunication on behalf of the British saw mainland prisons overflowing, so it was decided that Rottnest Island would become a penal colony and labour camp for Indigenous men. From 1838 to 1931, more than 4000 Aboriginal men from across the state were sent to the island and suffered horrific conditions at the hands of British, and later, Australian authorities. The prisoners were forced to mine limestone on the island in the gruelling summer heat, they were chained together and were beaten on a regular basis. It’s been reported that five men were hanged, and even more shot. As the prisoner population increased, boys as young as eight years old were incarcerated in continually worsening conditions. With no toilets, beds or warmth, the prisoners were packed tightly into cold, damp, dirt-floored, filthy cells overrun with diseases brought over by the British. While the prison itself closed officially in 1904, Indigenous prisoners were still forced to build up infrastructure on Rottnest Island until 1931. 

Rottnest Island’s dark history was soon forgotten by the local, predominantly white, Perth population. A popular camping destination, the Rottnest Island ‘Tent Lands’ were discovered to be a burial ground in the 1970s. More than 370 remains were found in unmarked, shallow graves. Despite this discovery, and pressure from First Nations protests in the 1980s, the camping ground wasn’t shut down by the Western Australian government until 1993. Over 370 imprisoned boys and men died on Rottnest Island – the largest case of Indigenous deaths in custody that Australia has ever seen. 

Invasion, incarceration and ignorance are at the heart of the island’s past, and it is only in recent years that holiday-makers have been able to look beyond the cute animals and white sandy beaches. With more than 700,000 annual visitors and worldwide tourist campaigns, Rottnest Island, or Wadjemup, is more than just a holiday destination – it’s a spiritual site important to the very being of the Whadjuk Noongar people, and it’s a place of intense pain, loss and mourning of Indigenous lives.

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