Wadjemup timeline 

The timeline below provides a brief chronology of the history of Wadjemup.

Please be aware the following contains the names of people who have passed away and language reflecting the social attitudes of the time that may be confronting to read.

+30,000 years

A fertile environment cared for and occupied by the Whadjuk Noongar people of the South West of Australia.

  • The rising sea level covers the lowland existing to the immediate west of Walyalup (Fremantle) resulting in the creation of Wadjemup.
  • Despite this separation from the mainland, Wadjemup remains extremely significant to Whadjuk cultural beliefs throughout the generations and is known today as the resting place of the spirits. 


Sighted by Dutchman, Frederick De Houtman, commander of the exploratory vessels Dordrecht and Amsterdam.


Sighted by Samuel Volkersen, skipper of Dutch vessel Waeckende Boey, who visits the Island on 3 occasions in search of survivors from a shipwreck.


Sighted by Willem de Vlamingh, skipper of Geelvinck, who names the island 't Eylandt 't Rottenest (‘Rats' Nest Island’).


Crew members from French frigate Naturaliste under the command of Captain Hamelin visit over a 2-week period.


Crew members of the HMS Investigator under the command of Captain Matthew Flinders R.N. collect samples of flora and fauna during an inspection of the island.


Phillip Parker King, Captain of the Bathurst, and his botanist Allan Cunningham visit the island during a circumnavigation of the continent and depart with an unfavourable impression.


Troops from the 39th Regiment under the command of Major Edmund Lockyer, along with 23 convicts, establish a settlement at Albany.


Captain James Stirling dispatched from New South Wales to survey the Swan River and Cockburn Sound lands visits Wadjemup. Stirling would become the first Governor and Commander in Chief of the Swan River Colony 2 years later.


Western Australia annexed for Britain. First British colonists arrive in June. Swan River Colony established.


Survey of Wadjemup undertaken by Benjamin Smythe with the view of establishing a township to be known as Kingstown.


The Noongar name ‘Wadjemup’ is acknowledged in an article in the "Perth Gazette", having been provided by Robert Menli Lyon following discussion with Yagan, a respected Noongar leader who was serving a period of detention on Carnac Island at the time he was interviewed.


An item in the 'Perth Gazette' refers to a plan to convert Wadjemup into "a place of security for the confinement of such of the native inhabitants as may be guilty of any offences". The plan was suggested by Stirling and taken up by Governor John Hutt. The stated intentions were to provide a humane alternative solution to mainland incarceration and for the facility to be regarded as a training establishment, however, these intentions were interpreted differently by those responsible for implementation. 

  • Lawrence Welch appointed Superintendent of the Government Establishment, Rottnest.
  • First 10 Aboriginal prisoners arrive under escort to erect dwellings and harvest salt, and are chained to a tree as no prison building exists. First prison completed by the end of the year.


Welch leaves the island and Henry Vincent is appointed as the new Superintendent.

  • By the end of the year a house, store and salt house is constructed with prison labour.


Charles Symmons appointed first ‘Protector of Aborigines’. 


Vincent is commended for his successes in the construction of dwellings including a house for the Superintendent, and for the production of tons of salt, the reaping of wheat and the formation of gardens for vegetable production. All of which us accomplished using forced prison labour.

  • Act to Constitute the Island of Rottnest as a Legal Prison passes in Parliament.


Henry Vincent acquitted on a charge of cruelty to prisoners.


Francis Armstrong, ‘Interpreter to Aborigines’, endeavours to establish an Aboriginal mission at Wadjemup. The project falters within a very short time with the participants returning to the mainland.


Vincent again charged with cruelty to prisoners.


House built for newly appointed ‘Moral Agent’ and Storekeeper, Francis Armstrong.


Aboriginal prison population 44.


With the construction of buildings on the island completed all the prisoners are transferred back to the mainland in September, with a number returning within weeks to assist with the harvesting of crops.

  • On 20 November, 8 escape in a boat belonging to the Pilot Establishment and succeed in reaching the mainland.
  • Introduction of the Aboriginal Native Offenders Act allows whipping and imprisonment for summary offences.


A further 5 prisoners escape by boat including 1 from King George Sound, 2 men from Gingin, and 1 from the Victoria Plains.


Wadjemup reopens as a penal establishment. Aboriginal prisoners are once again transferred from Fremantle. Henry Vincent is appointed as Superintendent on a permanent basis.


‘The ‘Great Wadjemup Fire’ damages most buildings with a warder charged with arson.


Vincent directs the construction of various farm and school buildings.


Aboriginal prison population 36.


16 Aboriginal prisoners die from measles, being half the total number of deaths recorded for the entire year.

  • Construction of a new prison and Government Residence begins.
  • Additional complaints raised regarding the behaviour of Superintendent Henry Vincent.


Construction of The Quod is completed by Aboriginal prison labour. 

  • The Quod would become the main prison building during the penal era until the prisoners were relocated to the Salt House in 1912.


William Vincent, son of Henry Vincent, convicted of ill treatment of an Aboriginal prisoner.


Henry Vincent retires following investigation of charges of cruelty against Aboriginal prisoners.


Aboriginal prisoners engaged in the gathering and bagging of salt which is transported and sold on the mainland.

  • Aboriginal prison population 68.


Well known English novelist and civil servant Anthony Trollope visits, later reporting on the staging of a corroboree involving 18 participants.


Introduction of the The Aboriginal Native Offenders Act allows for two Justices of the Peace(JPs) to impose a maximum of six months imprisonment for summary offences.


Public concern raised about conditions on the island in the 'Herald' newspaper under the heading ‘Rottnest: Native Paradise or Black Man’s Grave?’.

  • Capital Punishment (Amendment Act) 1875 condemns Aboriginal people liable to public execution.


Aboriginal prison population 80.


First hanging of an Aboriginal prisoner, Tampin (no. 867), for the murder of John Moir, a settler at Fanny Cove near Albany.

  • Aboriginal prison population 65.


    Construction of Boys' Reformatory begins.

    • The Wines, Beer and Spirit Sale Act prohibits the sale, supply to or possession of alcohol by Aboriginal people except as wages by a publican.


    3 Aboriginal prisoners executed at Wadjemup: Wangabiddie for the murder of Charles Redfern in the Gascoyne, Guerilla for the murder of Anthony Cornish in the Kimberley, and Nannacrow for the murder of Charles Brackle in the Gascoyne. 

    • Outbreak in influenza. The total number of prisoners affected by influenza throughout the year, including those discharged, amounts to 269.
    • Governor Broome appoints a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the conditions and conduct of the prison, with the unsatisfactorily small size of the cells identified as a main concern. 
    • Aboriginal Offenders Act includes mixed descent in definition of ‘Aborigine’.


    Superintendent advocates for the creation of a new cemetery further from the Prison to replace the existing one.

    • Aboriginal prison population 167.


    The execution of 2 Aboriginal prisoners takes place on Wadjemup, reportedly in the presence of 170 prisoners.


    Aboriginal Protection Act passed in Parliament.

    Aboriginal prison population 116, including 87 incarcerated for killing livestock.


    Influenza epidemic affects around 50 prisoners and results in 1 death.


    The 5th and final execution of an Aboriginal prisoner on the island, Carlabangunburra (703), for the murder of Indyco in the Hamersley Range.

    • Aboriginal prison population 60.


    2 boys, Paddy Maloney (778) and Bagpipe (779), aged 10 and 11 respectively, charged with hut robbing at Esperance Bay and sentenced to the Boys' Reformatory for 6 months with hard labour. They remain in detention for almost 1 month prior to being discharged to Bishop Salvado at the New Norcia Mission.


    Influenza epidemic with no deaths recorded.

    • Aborigines Offenders Act (Amendment Act) allows whipping of Aboriginal prisoners instead of or in addition to prison.


    A visitor to the island reports on witnessing a corrobboree with 180 participants taking part.

    • Aboriginal Offenders Act (Amendment Act) increased the maximum sentencing allowed by JPs.


    Prison population falls to 40, the lowest number for some years and significantly less than that required to ensure that it remains economically viable.


    A question regarding the removal of prisoners from the island as a precursor to the creation of a tourist destination raised in Parliament.


    Influenza outbreak. 25 of the 26 deaths of Aboriginal prisoners on the Island are attributed to influenza, with 40 affected at one point during the year.


    Death and burial of Nardarook (207), incarcerated for the spearing of cattle in the Kimberley region. 

    • Frederick Pearse appointed as last Superintendent of the prison.
    • Royal Commission into prisons announced.
    • Inquest into the death of Niger (no. 100) concludes that the cells on the island “do not afford sufficient accommodation for 3 adult prisoners” and that “reformation in the management is very desirable”.
    • Tadpole, a 15-year-old boy from the Williams area, sentenced to 12 months detention at the Reformatory for larceny. He is released after 2 weeks by order of the visiting Medical Officer, Dr Hope.
    • The Inspector of Charitable Institutions compiles a detailed report on the operations of the Boys' Reformatory, describing conditions, numbers, conduct, discipline, training, education and health matters.
    • Article in the 'Northern Public Opinion and Mining and Pastoral News' commences with the statement that an Aboriginal person “who leaves the Nor-West to take up his compulsory residence at Rottnest for a period of years has very little chance of returning to his birthplace”, revealing the names, sentences and origins of the 22 individuals who came from districts north of Geraldton who died during 1897.


    The Report of the Royal Commission into Prisons released. Key findings include 'unfit' cell sizes, dirty walls, inadequate ventilation and the recommendation that Aboriginal people who commit an offence be placed in "remunerative open air work within the latitude in which they belong" rather than being sent to Wadjemup. The report further states that "it is difficult to imagine any mode of treatment more unsuitable in all its conditions than incarceration on Rottnest Island".


    Aboriginal prison population 50.


    Closure of the Boys' Reformatory and transfer of young males serving terms of imprisonment to the Salvation Army Industrial School at Collie.

    • Incarceration of Walganda (no. 229), who was also known as Fanny, from the Wiluna area. The only known Aboriginal woman to have been imprisoned on Wadjemup.


    The Colonial Secretary recommends the closure of the prison and removal of the remaining 33 Aboriginal prisoners to the north of the state. A subsequent inspection by a Parliamentary party supports the recommendation subject to the prisoners completing the harvesting of crops.

    • Good conduct long-term non-Aboriginal prisoners from Fremantle Prison sent to the island to work on improvements.
    • Lists compiled by the Superintendent in September specify the particulars of the 20 Aboriginal prisoners who remain incarcerated on the island along with 15 others who were transferred to the mainland to work for the Police and Postal Services while undergoing their sentences.
    • Salt Works closes as a result of the dwindling number of prisoners on the island to undertake forced labour. A new prison would later be established at this site in 1912.


    Amendment to close the Aboriginal prison on Rottnest passes in Parliament.

    • Average number of prisoners during the year is 14. The highest number recorded at any one time is 25, with 7 by the end of December.


    Wadjemup officially closes as a prison and is proclaimed a Penal Outstation annex of Fremantle.


    German born physician, anatomist and anthropologist Dr Hermann Klaatsh conducts anatomical research and photographs prisoners.

    • Aborigines Act introduced – this comprehensive act widened the definition of ‘aboriginality’, allowed for summary trials, created the position of Chief Protector, established reserves, disallowed the movements of Aboriginal people from designated missions or reserves, and governed marital liaisons.


    Noted Ethnographer Daisy Bates makes her first visit to the Island collecting tribal information and compiling genealogies.


    Declared a public park in perpetuity. Members of both Houses of Parliament along with people from the Fremantle Harbour Trust visit to inspect the progress of work being done by prison labour in preparation for the ‘opening up’ of the island as a ‘popular’ summer resort. 

    • New prison regulations preclude the payment of gratuities to Aboriginal prisoners upon discharge for work undertaken whilst incarcerated.
    • A comprehensive survey undertaken by AJ Lewis for the Lands Department identifies the existence of a previously unidentified cemetery adjoining the non-Aboriginal cemetery. 


    19 of the 21 Aboriginal prisoners on the island suffering from influenza.


    The Premier of the State announces the proposed closure of the annex pending the completion of improvements to the buildings to allow for public accommodation.


      The Comptroller of Prisons, Queensland, Charles Edward do Fonblanque Pennefather, appointed to enquire into the administration of Fremantle Prison. During the course of his investigations he visits the island where he finds “about 35” non-Aboriginal prisoners and “about the same number” of non-Aboriginal prisoners.

      • Prisoner population at 56: 20 Aboriginal men and 36 good conduct non-Aboriginal men.
      • The process of converting The Quod into a place to accommodate tourists begins with the removal of the prisoners to a temporary camp situated at ‘The Neck’, 8km west of the main settlement.
      • The Colonial Secretary recommends the establishment of a new facility to accommodate Aboriginal Prisoners.


      Licensing Act prohibits the supply of alcohol to full or mixed descent Aboriginal people. This was repealed in 1970.


      An Aboriginal life-saving brigade established and trained in the use of rocket propelled equipment. The team remained in existence for several years, 1 member replacing another as their sentence expired.

      • Ethnographer Daisy Bates returns for a second time to collect cultural and genealogical information.
      • Aboriginal prisoners relocated to temporary prison of small dimensions within the settlement area.
      • A new prison, otherwise known as the Salt House Prison, is completed along with a cookhouse, warehouse, woodshed and temporary warder’s accommodation.
      • Establishment of a camping ground adjacent to the settlement area where the remains of Aboriginal prisoners were previously buried. The site is described as ‘well shaded’ and close to the natural bathing pool and newly erected amenities.


      Almost 1100 German, Serbian and Croatian internees arrive, some opting to undertake the arduous tasks such as carting materials for which they were paid 2 shillings per day. Aboriginal prisoners assigned to the same tasks were unpaid.

      • Principal Warder recommends the removal of prisoners from the island during the tourist season with the retention of the Aboriginal prisoners to undertake routine tasks,


      Sydney Edwin Smith of the Survey Department completes a plan for the establishment of a new prison contained within 120 acres (48 hectares) of land to the immediate south of Lake Baghdad. 

      • 21 huts previously used by the internees are hauled to the Salt House Prison pending their placement at the new site. 
      • Rottnest declared an A-Class Reserve for tourism.
      • A Board of Control appointed to manage the affairs of the Island.
      • Prison population 40: 20 Aboriginal males and 20 non-Aboriginal male.


      By February 9 huts are hauled from the Salt House prison to the proposed new prison site at Lake Baghdad, where a stone kitchen is constructed and wells are sunk. Work on the new prison ceases the following month, however, and the Salt House is retained as the main prison.


      Albert Jackson (9642) kills Wooby alias Jimmy Dibbs (6978). Charged with wilful murder, Albert is escorted back to the mainland where he escapes from custody, is recaptured, tried and sentenced to death with the recommendation of mercy. He gains further notoriety for endeavouring to escape on 3 occasions prior to his passing away in 1919.


      A new plan to establish a Reformatory Prison adjacent to the existing site at Lake Baghdad is prepared by James Stoddard, a surveyor with the Public Works Department. The site is officially proclaimed a Prison Reserve, however, the Reformatory is never built.

      • Petition presented to the State Parliament pointing out the inhumanity of bringing Aboriginal prisoners down from the north-west chained by the neck and given only a bare space of deck accommodation.
      • Aboriginal prisoners commended for producing an ‘excellent’ sample of wheat.


      The 9 huts at Lake Baghdad are renovated to become a Reformatory for low-risk non-Aboriginal prisoners, with the first 4 arriving that year. 



      The decline in the number of prisoners sent to the Reformatory leads to the closure of the facility.


      Cabinet approves the closure of Wadjemup as an extension of Fremantle Prison.

      • The remaining 9 long-term Aboriginal prisoners are returned to Fremantle Prison prior to being transferred to the Broome Goal. Their removal aligns with the growing number of tourist visitors.
      • Rottnest Island Board negotiates for the return of prisoners to undertake structural and domestic tasks.


      Questions raised in Legislative Assembly regarding the use of prison labour by ‘non-government’ residents.


      Reference in the 'Western Mail' to the existence of an Aboriginal burial ground containing the remains of 300 prisoners in the area set aside for camping.


      Article in the 'Mirror' entitled “Murderers at Large At Rottnest” provides a brief insight into the lives of 2 prisoners, Lumbia (no. 13083) and Malanga @ Bungarra (no. 12032) and conditions on the island during the penultimate year of the prison.


      The last remaining Aboriginal prisoner, Maitland Narrier (15597), is escorted back to Fremantle Prison to complete the remainder of his sentence.


      Land at Bickley acquired by the Commonwealth for defence purposes.

      • Native Administration Act changes the title of Chief Protector to Commissioner of Native Affairs. The expansive definition given to `native' is extended the reach of the Commissioner's powers. Commissioner of Native Affairs made the legal guardian of all legitimate and illegitimate `native' children to the age of 21 `notwithstanding that the child has a parent or other relative living'.


      The entire island re-gazetted a temporary Military Manoeuvre Area.


      Kingstown Army Barracks completed.


      Defence Department assumes control with the island becoming a restricted area. Buildings within the settlement are converted for military purposes and tourism halted. Permanent residents permitted to remain whilst civilian women and children are evacuated.


      Native Administration Act (Amendment Act) restricts the right of Aboriginal people to move from north to south of the State across the 20th parallel of south latitude.


      Full strength of 2500 military personnel stationed on the island.


      The Natives (Citizenship Rights) Act give limited rights to Aboriginal people who can prove, among other things that they have adopted a 'civilised life' and do not associate with other Aboriginal people.


      Island re-opens for tourism following the declaration of peace that ended WWII.


      Construction of tourist facilities and amenities re-commences.


      Further reference to the existence of an Aboriginal cemetery "enclosed by a low line-stone wall" published in a book titled ‘Isle of Girls’ by author Eleanor Smith.


      The Rottnest Island Board supersedes the Rottnest Island Board of Control.


      State Cabinet approves a capital grant of £95,000 to effect infrastructure upgrades and re-afforestation activities.


      The long-abandoned Salt Works demolished.


      A contracting team engaged in drainage work uncovers a number of skeletal remains in an area about 50 metres in between the settlement and the golf course. The remains are buried in a sitting position in rows of trenches about 60cm apart.


      The existence of a burial ground situated to the ‘immediate north of the Quod’ is acknowledged in the Manager’s report to the Rottnest Island Board.


      Official opening of the Rottnest Island Museum in the same building that was previously used as a temporary dormitory for the prisoners, and a salt store.


      Report entitled “Rottnest Island: A National Estate Survey of it’s History, Architecture and Environment” by R.J. Ferguson released, providing, in part, an overview of the history of the incarceration of Aboriginal prisoners on the island from 1838 through to 1922. The report is published as a book in 1985.


      A “Rottnest Island Master Plan” produced for the Rottnest Island Board advocates establishing a ‘Historic Precinct’ encompassing the original structures associated with the early Thompson Bay settlement and penal colony and makes no reference to the existence of the Aboriginal burial ground.


      Rottnest Island Management Plan Report produced for the Department of the Premier and Cabinet and the Rottnest Island Board. Reference is made to a cemetery containing approximately 60 bodies as being a major site of importance relating to Aboriginal presence on the island and recommends:

      1. acknowledgement of the area in consultation with the Western Australian Museum and local Aboriginal Community
      2. no further disturbances except to maintain existing services
      3. the preparation of a history for educational purposes.


        Further evidence confirms the existence of the burial ground after additional graves are uncovered by a work team.


        Proposal to redevelop The Quod for further tourism met with protests from over 200 Aboriginal people.

        • Public concerns about the neglect of the burial ground raised.
        • The Rottnest Island Authority assumes the administration for the running of the island from the Rottnest Island Authority Board.


        Work ceases on the upgrading of the Rottnest Lodge due to the existence of the Aboriginal burial site in the area. 

        • Cultural items, including a glass spearhead and a message stick uncovered during maintenance work on The Quod.
        • A number of prominent Aboriginal people seek to have the area declared a sacred site. The application is rejected by the Supreme Court.


        Curtin University engaged by the Aboriginal Sites Department to assist with re-defining the extent of the burial site.


        Specialist advisory committees formed to investigate aspects of the island including historic buildings and sites.

        • Minutes of the meetings of the Rottnest Island Authority reveal that attempts were made throughout the year to agree upon the extent of the Aboriginal burial ground as well as the management of the site.


        The Aboriginal burial site location is re-fenced to provide greater protection.


        Premier Richard Court addresses a State-wide Aboriginal representative group during the Year of Indigenous Peoples and acknowledges Wadjemup as the largest Aboriginal deaths in custody burial site in Australia.

        • Ground penetrating radar survey raises the possibility that the island contains more Aboriginal graves than previously thought.


        'Chronological History of Rottnest Island' published by the Government of Western Australia.


        The highly acclaimed book by Neville Green and Susan Moon, ‘Far From Home’, is published.


        200 Aboriginal people representing different language groups from across the state visit and march in procession to the burial ground where they offer their respect to the dead. A spokesman for those gathered requests that the area be fenced, a plaque erected, and Aboriginal people employed to supervise the proposed work.


        First Aboriginal person, Karen Jacobs, appointed to the Rottnest Island Authority Board.


        Designated camping area relocated away from the Aboriginal Burial Ground.


        First Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) adopted by the Rottnest Island Authority.


        Short film 'Wadjemup: Black Prison White Playground' produced by Aboriginal film maker Glen Stasiuk is released detailing the history of incarceration and more recent developments.


        Cabinet approves the establishment of the Wadjemup Aboriginal Reference Group (WARG) to provide advice to the Rottnest Island Authority Board and Executive Director on a future strategy for the Aboriginal burial ground, and possible future use of The Quod.


        The Quod closes as tourist accommodation.


        Consultation commences to memorialise the Aboriginal history of Wadjemup.

        Page reviewed 25 May 2023