Wadjemup — The Land Beyond the Shore

A searchable database of Aboriginal people sent to Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) between 1900 and 1931.

On this page

The Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Wadjemup, the Whadjuk Noongar people and their Elders past and present. We pay our respect to the many Aboriginal people from across the state whose ancestors were incarcerated on the Island between 1838 and 1931, and to those who were laid to rest so far from their homelands. We acknowledge the ongoing sadness, pain and devastation that the history of incarceration has caused for families and communities and recognise the strength and resilience of their descendants.

Map of Wadjemup prepared by surveyor A.J. Lewis
Photo: Map of Wadjemup prepared by surveyor A.J. Lewis with later amendments, c.1909. Rottnest Isle Sheet 3 [Tally No. 505108], S2168, cons5698, item 1493, State Records Office of WA

For almost a century, Wadjemup was used as a prison, with more than 3500 Aboriginal men and a handful of boys and one woman from across Western Australia sent to the Island between 1838 and 1931.

We have compiled a searchable database of Aboriginal people who were sent to the Island between 1900 and 1931 to help Aboriginal Western Australians to find information about their family history.

The timeframe 1900 to 1931 was selected for this project following the discovery of items created during this period within the State Archives and due to the existence of a significant number of studies already devoted to the early history of Island, most notably the publication by Dr Neville Green and Susan Moon 'Far From Home'.

The information has been compiled from publicly available records, all of which are fully referenced within, including Western Australia police gazettes, police reports and occurrence books, court records, admission and discharge registers and historical newspapers.

What’s in the database?

The database captures each person’s first sentencing to Wadjemup between 1900 and 1931 and includes the following information:

  • name, birth and death details
  • prisoner number
  • place and date of arrest
  • place and date of trial
  • prison sentence
  • date of admission and discharge.

Whilst every effort has been made to complete all data fields, with the loss of records over time, this has in some cases not been possible.

Names and spelling

All names listed in the database have come from prison and police records. It is important to note that these records did not always capture the many aliases that a person may have been known by (for example, a person may have been known by a traditional name, kinship name, nickname and a European name). Spelling variations and misspellings were also common from one recording to the next (for example, “Yongangarra” @ “Yanganarra” @ “Yungalarra”). If you are having difficulty locating a name, try expanding the search results by inputting spelling variations or other possible names.

Birth and death details

All birth information has been sourced from the prison admission and discharge registers and WA police gazettes. In many instances they are an estimated guess and may not accord with the actual age of the individual. The date or year within which an individual is acknowledged as passing away is more accurate with the particulars coming from a range of publicly available resources, including cemetery registers, historical newspapers and the Western Australian Department of Justice Online Index.

Admissions to Fremantle Prison

Wadjemup became an annex of Fremantle Prison from 1904 through to its closure in 1931. From this year onwards all admissions to Wadjemup were made through the Fremantle Prison, where prisoners were sent to have their details recorded and to await their transfer to the Island.

Prisoner numbering

Before the Island’s annexure to Fremantle Prison in 1904, names were entered into a numerical register on arrival to the Island. Following the annexure, all prisoners were admitted to Wadjemup through the Fremantle Prison which had a different numbering system.

Any individuals who were reconvicted and re-admitted to were re-allocated the same number originally assigned to them regardless of the numerical register that had been originally used. Where a prisoner was assigned multiple numbers indicates that they were imprisoned there from one year to the next (during which time the registers were updated).

Prison sentences

The sentences recorded in the database reflect the original term given by the court, however, most were discharged with a remission applied to their sentences. Reasons for granting a remission varied from good behaviour, to honouring the Coronation of the King, to ill health or old age.

Hard labour was imposed as part of the prison sentences and many were put to work constructing buildings and infrastructure which still exist on the Island today, including the Quod, seawall, museum, salt store, church, lighthouses and heritage cottages in the main town.

Others were transferred into the custody of the police or other government agencies to serve out a portion of their sentence as trackers and assistants across the State. There were also some who were transferred to Aboriginal settlements or government reserves to complete the remainder of their sentences within the confines of these establishments.

Viewing restricted information

Some information has been withheld from public access for privacy reasons. Direct descendants can request restricted information by completing a Family History Form available from Aboriginal History Research Services.

Database statistics

The statistics below provide a snapshot of where Aboriginal people who were imprisoned on Wadjemup were sent from, the reasons for their incarceration, and the length of sentence imposed. All statistics are between 1900 to 1931.

Place of trial

During the early years of the prison’s establishment, the prison population consisted mostly of Whadjuk men and other Noongar people from the South West. By the late 1800s, following the expansion of the pastoral industries further north and to the east, an increasing number of Aboriginal people from the Goldfields, Mid West, Wheatbelt and Kimberley regions were sentenced to Wadjemup.

The journey from the place of trial to Wadjemup varied across the State. For example, some were escorted by boat from places such as Esperance and all ports between Wyndham and Geraldton to Fremantle, while others more inland were escorted by train. At the completion of their sentence terms most were offered a ticket home or to nearest town with a trainline or port.

Reasons for imprisonment

In viewing the reasons for imprisonment below please consider the following significant factors contributing to the incarceration of Aboriginal people at the time:

  • The arrival of Europeans to Western Australia greatly disrupted a way of life that had been maintained by the Traditional Owners for tens and thousands of years.
  • Dispossession of land, access to traditional foods and diminishing food sources resulted in the necessity to commit offences including those relating to stealing of food and the spearing of cattle.
  • Adherence to traditional laws and customs in some instances meant having to go against Western Law, with many offences committed following customary laws and practices such as payback or spearing.
  • Limited understanding of the English language led to people being punished for crimes that they did not understand.
  • Legal representation and language translators were seldom arranged.
  • The existence of racial prejudice and discrimination in the criminal justice system would have been a barrier to receiving a fair trial.
  • The introduction of discriminatory legislation, most notably The Aborigines Act of 1905, gave the State unprecedented control over nearly every aspect of life for Aboriginal people in Western Australia. The Act created the position of Chief Protector of Aborigines who became the legal guardian of every Aboriginal child to the age of 16, allowing for the removal of children onto missions or reserves or into employment. He could grant or deny permission for marriages and managed the property and bank accounts of Aboriginal people without their consent. Freedom of movement was restricted, with Aboriginal people prohibited to enter towns and certain places. Breaches to the Act often carried severe penalties, including imprisonment, and police had extensive powers of surveillance.

Sentence length

The sentences captured below reflect the original term given by the court, however, most were discharged with a remission applied to their sentence terms.

Page reviewed 25 May 2023