Wadjemup — The Land Beyond the Shore

A history of Aboriginal incarceration on Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) between 1900-1931.

Historic snapshot

Situated 18 kilometres off Fremantle Wadjemup was occupied for up to 30,000 thousand of years by the Noongar people of the South-west prior to being separated from the mainland by the rising sea around 7000 years ago. Wadjemup has a significant spiritual quality that has been handed down from one generation to the next. 

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

In 1696 Dutch sailor Willem de Vlamingh named the island 't Eylandt 't Rottenest ("Rats' Nest Island") after he mistook the quokkas on the island for giant rats.

Unoccupied at the time of the colonisation in 1829 Wadjemup was the ideal location to incarcerate and rehabilitate a growing number of Aboriginal people deemed to be a threat by settler society. It was acknowledged at the time that the methods of incarceration being used were deemed to be inadequate.

The original intent for establishing a prison at Wadjemup was that it “offered many advantages both as a place of detention and affording a greater degree of personal liberty”. 

From 1838 through to 1931 over 3500 Aboriginal men and one Aboriginal woman were imprisoned there. Over the course of its existence the island was also a place of incarceration of non-Aboriginal prisoners, juveniles within a Reformatory (1880-1902) and 1300 German, Serbs and Croatian internees who were held there for a short time during World War 1 (1914-1916).

"An Act to constitute the Island of Rottnest a Legal Prison", 1841.

At the turn of the 20th century there were 50 Aboriginal prisoners on Wadjemup, 130 less than were on the island seven years earlier. By May 1903 this number had dwindled to 21 with a further eight transferred to work in government offices such as police and telegraph stations across the state until they completed their sentences.

In June 1904 the prison was reclassified as a penal settlement becoming an annex of Fremantle Gaol both for Aboriginal and good conduct non-Aboriginal prisoners. By the end of the decade moves were being planned for the removal of all non-Aboriginal prisoners to the mainland. This did not occur and they continued to remain at the prison until it closed.

Throughout the history of the prison the Aboriginal inmates were assigned to more basic tasks such as wood chopping, carting water and sanitary requirements. The non-Aboriginal prisoners attending to the more sophisticated tasks. This system remained unchanged until the close of the prison in 1931.

Map of Wadjemup prepared by surveyor A.J. Lewis
Photo: View looking towards the Quad, 1901. Western Mail, June 1, 1901, pg 42, State Library of WA

From 1922 onwards there were less than a dozen Aboriginal prisoners on Wadjemup at any given time. In December each year, with the beginning of the tourist season, they were transferred back to Fremantle and then returned to the island six months later.

Though still confined to their huts at night their daily existence was vastly different to that endured prisoners in the preceding 60 years. By December 1931 there were only five remaining Aboriginal prisoners at Wadjemup. Four departed on 3 December and the last prisoner a week later.

During its lifespan Rottnest Prison reformed from a draconian establishment where around 400 Aboriginal men died and were buried prior to the turn of the century, to a more accepting institution very much aligned to the original intent from 1900 to 1931.

Journey to Wadjemup

The journey to Wadjemup commenced with the act of a crime.  These transgressions ranged from the very petty, for example use of obscene language or the theft of a loaf of bread through to the extreme, murder, offences under the Criminal Code Act 1901-2. Individuals found guilty of the former were in some instances sentenced to six months imprisonment, the full extent of the law. Others were jailed for seemingly trivial matters such as the receipt of liquor, an offence under the Aborigines Act 1905, a draconian measure restricting the lives of Aboriginal people throughout the State. The sentencing of an offender to Wadjemup was also seen as an opportunity to temporarily remove a perceived nuisance from the location where the crime had been committed.

Group of unidentified prisoners on Wadjemup, 1901
Photo: Group of unidentified prisoners on Wadjemup, 1901. Western Mail, June 1, 1901, pg 42, State Library of WA

Some of those found guilty of the latter were jailed by a system that failed to take into consideration tribal law including payback and other cultural practices. A significant number could not understand why they were being arrested. 

Many of the alleged perpetrators who would eventually make their way to Wadjemup were arrested within a day or two of committing an offence. Others from more remote locations were arrested weeks even months later. In many cases this occurred hundreds of kilometres from where an offence was allegedly committed. The trek back to the station of the arresting officer often taking several days and was completed on foot and in chains.

Group of Aboriginal men from the Kimberley region in chains for spearing cattle, early 20th c
Photo: Group of Aboriginal men from the Kimberley region in chains for spearing cattle, early 20th c BA684/32, State Library of WA

Standing trial was a completely unfamiliar experience to many of the alleged offenders. Though represented by council, their limited understanding of English together with the procedure of the courtroom was often a barrier to receiving a fair trial. There were also many inconsistencies in sentencing that occurred across the state. 

Group of Aboriginal men from the North-east Goldfields in chains, awaiting trial in Kalgoorlie
Photo: Group of Aboriginal men from the North-east Goldfields in chains, awaiting trial in Kalgoorlie. Tamby @ Billy (7713) 3rd from left, Gilbert (6375) 3rd from right, William (5051) far right. Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 4 October, 1910, pg 25, State Library of WA
The journey from the place of conviction to Fremantle and onto Wadjemup varied across the state. For example, those found guilty at trial were escorted by boat from places such as Esperance and all ports between Wyndham and Geraldton to Fremantle. There are at least two instances one in 1900 and another in 1919 of prisoners from the Kimberley who were brought down in neck chains. In certain cases, they were held in captivity for many days until a ship arrived. Those prisoners from the Murchison and Eastern Goldfields were transported by stream train to Fremantle, a journey lasting up to three days. Many of them arriving tied with ropes and in the clothing they had been arrested in.

Their journey was a traumatic and trying experience, compounded by the alienation from family and country. It is estimated that up to twenty-five prisoners died whilst in transit from the place of arrest to Wadjemup.

Chief Secretary's Department list of Aboriginal prisoners at Wadjemup as at 31 December 1901
Photo: Chief Secretary's Department list of Aboriginal prisoners at Wadjemup as at 31 December 1901. cons752, item 393, pg 10, State Records Office of WA

After their arrival they were held in the Fremantle lock-up for a period of up to seven days pending the departure of a vessel to the island.

For those who had never seen the ocean or travelled by watercraft the journey to Wadjemup was terrifying even more so in choppy conditions when sea sickness was rife.

Daily life

Life for a prisoner from the wake-up call on Monday morning through to noon on Saturday was one of routine. Following a light breakfast, work commenced on the allocated tasks for the day.

These ranged from the mildly challenging responsibilities of conveying goods and passengers from ferries through to the settlement to the more mundane cutting and carting of firewood, quarrying of stone, removal of rubbish and supplying water to cater for the increasing visitor numbers.
Collecting passengers off Wadjemup
Photo: Collecting passengers off Wadjemup, n.d. Rottnest Islands photographs; BA1266/1, 007177D, State Library of WA
Prisoners with luggage and passengers between the jetty and the settlement, 1917
Photo: Prisoners with luggage and passengers between the jetty and the settlement, 1917. 304439PD, State Library of WA

In addition to this work time was allocated to maintaining farming and livestock operations to cater for the island needs with the excess sent to market on the mainland.  For this work Aboriginal prisoners were not paid unlike their non-Aboriginal counterparts.

Two Aboriginal men preparing sheep on Wadjemup, c. 1915
Photo: Two Aboriginal men preparing sheep on Wadjemup, c. 1915. Karl Lehmann collection; 1146, 4936352, National Library of Australia

At around noon lunch was provided and they continued to work around the island until late afternoon before returning to the depot for an evening meal. The prisoners were then assembled for a roll call prior to returning to their cells for the night.

Fremantle Gaol Nominal return showing prisoners and their alloted tasks for the week ending 15 May, 1915
Photo: Fremantle Gaol Nominal return showing prisoners and their alloted tasks for the week ending 15 May, 1915. Cons752, Item 1920/0001 v2, State Records Office of WA

With the island becoming more of a tourist destination the prisoners provided the labour to develop the island under skilled supervision.

An Aboriginal prisoner working as a stockman with the sheep on Wadjemup, c.1915
Photo: An Aboriginal prisoner working as a stockman with the sheep on Wadjemup, c.1915. Karl Lehmann collection; 1146, 4938736, National Library of Australia

Prisoners, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal were called upon to fight the outbreaks of fire that raged upon the Island from one year to the next. In 1917 alone, there were seven such incidents. Of the two groupings of fire fighters the Aboriginal men appear to have been the most enthusiastic, often staying out well into the late evening to extinguish the embers. In most instances there was no difference in the reward provided, each of the participants being presented with a tin of meat or some free time on a Saturday morning to do as they pleased.

Weekend pursuits

Freed from the rigour of work from noon Saturday until roll call the same evening and all-day Sunday the prisoners enjoyed their temporary freedom.  Many, particularly those from far inland, spent their time hunting the abundant wildlife utilising spears, boomerangs and other hunting implements made from the vegetation on the island and applying their excellent tracking skills in the pursuit of wildlife. On returning to the compound the prisoners cooked their catch, often in a traditional manner.

Others preferred aquatic activities such as swimming and fishing and more leisurely sporting pursuits.

Time was also spent, by the more enterprising, in the production of paintings and artefacts that were sold to an ever-increasing number of tourists.  In 1917 the warden reported that the prisoners were selling wallabies and handing the proceeds to him for safe keeping.

One of a number of fine paintings produced by Johnny Cudgel while imprisoned on Wadjemup
Photo: One of a number of fine paintings produced by Johnny Cudgel while imprisoned on Wadjemup. The vessel 'City of York' was wrecked off the eastern coast of the island in 1899 while en route to Fremantle from San Francisco. In addition to these works that were readily sought after, Cudgel was noted for his model making abilities and the 'creation of comical illustrations. cons968, item 1969, State Records Office of WA

Escape and punishment

Over the course of the life of the prison from 1900 onwards there were only two attempted escapes by Aboriginal prisoners, both by dingy with only one Chickong reaching the mainland. Leaving the island without paddles or food he drifted on the open sea for four days and was quite thin and weak when he was recaptured at Mandurah. When questioned as to why he escaped Chickong was reported to have replied “Me thin um serve long um nuff” (I think I have served long enough). Chickong was returned to Wadjemup and was sentenced to one month for absconding and stealing a dingy. He was officially discharged nine months later due to ill health.

Gaols Department correspondence showing Chickong's Remission of sentence, 1905
Photo: Gaols Department correspondence showing Chickong's Remission of sentence, 1905. cons968, item 1969, State Records Office of WA

In 1916 two prisoners, Mattico alias Willie (6269) and Wangadura alias Paddy (9966), escape from their cell and attempted to reach the mainland by boat Their endeavour was thwarted by strong winds and they returned to the Island and were recaptured the following day. The two were then escorted to Fremantle where they were confined to the punishment cells for three weeks receiving bread and water for the first seven days.

In March 1917 another two prisoners, Wingetta Paddy (175, 6407) and Weirbundy alias Albert Jackson (9642), endeavoured to escape by boat having forced their way out of their cell one evening. For reasons not known they abandoned their quest and returned to the prison before dawn. Identified by their tracks by another prisoner, George Coyle, the two were handcuffed for seven consecutive nights as a warning to their fellow prisoners not to attempt to escape.

Deaths and burials

The last two prisoners to die on the Island were Nardorook (207) from pneumonia in July 1898 and William @ Billy Shaw (7096) from lung disease in June 1906. Nardorook was one of eight arrested at the remote Denham River the previous year for unlawful possession of meat and was sentenced to two years hard labour and ‘15 strokes of the cat’ at Wyndham. Within two days he and three others absconded from a prison working party only to be recaptured the following day and sentenced to an additional three months and ten lashings. A fortnight later the four were transferred to Wadjemup.

Billy, on the other hand was from the South of the State, having been born in Newcastle (Toodyay). A labourer by trade, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment at Wadjemup for ‘supplying liquor to Aborigines’. Ten days after arriving Billy passed away and was returned to the mainland where he was buried at Fremantle Cemetery. He was 52 years old.

Unlike the previous century his was the only death on the Island after 1900 even though life-threatening epidemics occurred. Fewer prisoners, less cramped conditions, improved understandings and a weekly visit by a medical officer may have individually or collectively accounted for this. In almost all instances, the more serious cases were transferred to Fremantle Gaol Hospital and returned to the Island on recovering. There were two exceptions, Norman Gydgup (13685) who passed away in 1906 and Kaldoring alias Jackey (8216) who died the day he was due to be released in 1910. Both we buried in the Fremantle cemetery.

Cultural continuity

Memories of their country and loved ones were constantly on the minds of the prisoners. They continued to maintain their deep connection to their homelands through ceremonial observation. Fellow prisoners, unaccustomed to the different dances and languages spoken, were invited to participate resulting in an exchange of cultural knowledge. Secular corroborees were staged for visiting dignitaries and government officials from time to time.

The manufacture of implements such as glass spear points and boomerangs was foreign to many prisoners. Though predominately utilised for hunting purposes the later were also used with great skill to the amazement of officials and the ever-increasing tourist market.

Intricately carved wooden message sticks were also produced depicting a vast range of subjects ranging from the eventful journey to the island through to letters of love to family and intended wives. Such items were spirited ‘home’ by kinsmen as they were released.

Pearl shells too, gathered by the inmates were fashioned and utilized for personal adornment and ceremonial purposes. Meticulously inscribed, these valued possessions often ending up in the remotest part of the state, traded by the prisoners on their return home.

Decorated pearl shell, message stick and ornament made from shark teeth held at the British Museum in 1907
Photo: Decorated pearl shell, message stick and ornament made from shark teeth held at the British Museum in 1907. Western Mail, December 25, 1907, pg 11, State Library of WA

The last man on Wadjemup

Maitland Narrier (circa 1912-1978) has the distinction of being the last Aboriginal prisoner to be sent to Wadjemup in October 1931 and the last to leave on December 9. Arrested in the Moora area in August, for enticing an Aboriginal girl to leave the Moore River Native Settlement, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment. The same girl would later become his wife.

Narrier Maitland, last man to leave Wadjemup
Photo: Narrier Maitland (15597), last man to leave Wadjemup, n.d. Moore River Native Settlement - Mogumber Mission collection (Circa 1918-1950) , Volume 4, 596

Initially incarcerated at Fremantle Goal, he was transferred to Wadjemup three months later where he remained for seven weeks before returning to the mainland in mid- December to complete his sentence.

Prior to being jailed Narrier had lived an unblemished life. Raised and educated in the Moora area he attended the local school later gaining employment as a farm labourer. His family was well known throughout the area for their sporting ability.

Two years after regaining his freedom Maitland married and together the couple spent much of their lives in the mid-west region where they reared their eight children.

Seeking to attain the ‘privileges’ denied him Maitland applied for and was granted citizenship in 1955, a former employer describing him as a “competent all-round farm worker.” Maitland Narrier passed away in 1978, aged 66. He is buried in the Moora cemetery.

The homeward trek

On completion of their sentences the prisoners were provided with casual wear and escorted to Fremantle to begin the first stage of their journey home. Those from the Eastern Goldfields and Murchison were given the opportunity to return to their country by train while a boat passage was found for those from the Kimberley.

There were also others who were transferred from Wadjemup to serve out their sentences as trackers and assistants to the police and other government agencies across the State. Whilst the majority returned home a small number chose to remain where they had been employed. On completion of their sentences most were sent back to their places of conviction while a small number absconded beforehand and never came to the attention of the authorities again.

Wadjemup today

The Wadjemup of today is a far cry from the Wadjemup of the past.  Gone are the cries of those who suffered while imprisoned on the island. Still visible are former prison buildings where injustice, indifference and death occurred.

Hidden from sight are the resting places of those who passed away unearthed during excavations, a stark reminder of a by-gone era.

From time to time the spirits of the deceased, as well as the survivors, have arisen from this land beyond the shore to haunt and taunt the community.

Though the Island was a source of fear in the past, the Aboriginal community is embracing the opportunity to engage and provide a voice for both remediation and recognition to heal the scares of the past and to determine how the Aboriginal story of Wadjemup will be told.

Wadjemup timeline

The timeline below provides a brief chronology of the history of Wadjemup, from the pre-contact era, to its establishment as a prison and later an annex of Fremantle Prison, and onto Wadjemup today.

Pre-contact to 1619

  • <30,000 years — A fertile environment cared for and occupied by the Noongar Aboriginal 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, an island separated from the mainland.
  • Though no longer accessible the Island, often indistinct in wintery conditions and the haze of summer, revered in mythological and cultural significance.

European History 1619-1838

  • 1619 — Sighted by Dutchman Frederick De Houtman's commander of the exploratory vessels Dordrecht and Amsterdam. 
  • 1658 — Sighted by Samuel Volkersen, skipper of Dutch vessel Waeckende Boey who lands three times.
  • 1696 — Sighted by Willem de Vlamingh, skipper of Geelvinck, who names the island 't Eylandt 't Rottenest (‘Rats' Nest Island’).
  • 1801— Crew from French frigate Naturaliste under the command of Captain Hamelin visit over a two-week period. 
  • 1802 — The crew of the HMS Investigator under the command of Captain Matthew Flinders RN visit recording, collecting and documenting information.
  • 1822 — Phillip Parker King, Captain of Bathurst, and his botanist Mr Cunningham visit during a circumnavigation of the Continent and leaving with a negative impression.
  • 1826 — Exploration and surveying undertaken by the captain of the HMS Success, James Stirling who would become the first ‘Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia’.
  • 1829 — Western Australia annexed for Britain. First British colonists arrive in June. Swan River Colony established.
  • 1833 — The Noongar name ‘Wadjemup’ is acknowledged in the Perth Gazette Newspaper in April by correspondent Robert Menli Lyon who had spent time with Yagan, a respected Noongar leader, on the nearby Carnac Island. 
  • 1836 — talks commence to segregate Aboriginal people from the colonist community in a prison.

Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) Aboriginal Establishment 1838-1899

  • 1838 — 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’. Legislative Act passes establishing a legal prison at Wadjemup. Governor Hutt’s stated intention was to provide a humane alternative solution to mainland incarceration and for the facility to be regarded as a training establishment. His intentions were interpreted differently by those responsible for implementation. 
    • First 10 Aboriginal prisoners arrive at Wadjemup and were chained to a tree as no prison building exists
  • 1839 — Salt House completed.
  • 1840 — First ‘Protector of Aborigines’ appointed, Charles Symmons. 
  • 1841— Prison Superintendent Henry Vincent’s house and outbuildings constructed by prisoners. 
    • Accumulation of tons of salt, reaping of wheat and formation of gardens for vegetable production.
  • 1842 — Henry Vincent charged with cruelty towards prisoners. Vincent acquitted.
  • 1843 — Francis Armstrong ‘Interpreter to Aborigines’ endeavours to establish a native mission at Wadjemup. The project ceases after a very short time and those present return to the mainland.
  • 1844 — Permanent Military Barracks completed.
  • 1846 — Henry Vincent charged but exonerated on second charge of cruelty. 
  • 1847 — House built for newly appointed ‘Moral Agent’ and storekeeper, Francis Armstrong.
  • 1848 — First official pilot, Captain Back, arrives. Aboriginal prison population 44.
  • 1849 — Nine Aboriginal prisoners escape. 
    • Prison temporarily closed due to insufficient employment and all prisoners transferred to mainland.
  • 1855 — Reopened as a penal establishment. Aboriginal prisoners transferred from mainland under the control of Henry Vincent.
  • 1856 — The ‘Great Wadjemup fire’ affecting most buildings especially cottages, prison, stable and barn area. Prison warder charged with arson.
  • 1857 — Vincent directs the construction of various farm and school buildings. 
  • 1858 — Aboriginal prison population 36.
  • 1862 — Construction of a new prison and government residence begins.
    • Measles epidemic. 16 Aboriginal prisoners die. Death toll for the year 32. Complaints raised regarding Vincent’s abuse of prisoners.
  • 1864 — A prison commonly referred to as ‘The Quod’ is constructed by Aboriginal labour working under slave like conditions.
  • 1865 — William Vincent, son of Henry Vincent, convicted of cruelty towards an Aboriginal prisoner.
  • 1866 — Henry Vincent resigns following investigation of charges of cruelty against Aboriginal prisoners.
  • 1868 — Aboriginal prisoners engaged in the gathering and bagging of salt which is transported and sold on the mainland. Aboriginal prison population 68.
  • 1872 — Well known English novelist and civil servant Anthony Trollope visits and views a Corroboree that is staged involving 18 performers from one ‘tribe’. In his book entitled Australia and New Zealand he describes the event as the ‘best he ever saw’. Aboriginal prison population 65.
  • 1875 — Public concern raised about conditions in The Herald Newspaper with a headline ‘Rottnest: Native Paradise or Black Man’s Grave?’
  • 1878 — Aboriginal prison population 80. 
  • 1879 — First execution of prisoner (18 July 1879) — Tampin (867) for the murder of John Moir. 
    • Commission of Inquiry into Prisons established. Rules and regulations for prisons drawn up.
  • 1880 — Construction of Boys Reformatory begins.
  • 1883 — Three Aboriginal prisoners executed at Wadjemup: Wangabiddie for the murder of Charles Redfern; Guerilla from the Kimberley for the murder of Anthony Cornish and one month later in July Nannacrow is executed for the murder of Charles Brackle. 
    • Governor Broome appoints a Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Welfare in the State including at the Aboriginal prison on Wadjemup. Enquiry finds that affairs were generally conducted humanely; cells are unsatisfactorily small but in spite of these disadvantages Rottnest is a better location for Aboriginal prisoners than the mainland and that the majority of prisoners are from remote locations.
    • A further response to the report sees the old cemetery close and a new one established further away from the existing location.
    • Outbreak of influenza results in the deaths of 59 prisoners 40 of them over a 16-day period including eight in one day. The total number of prisoners including those discharged 269. 
  • 1884 — Aboriginal prison population 167.
  • 1886 — Aboriginal Protection Act passed in Parliament. Aboriginal prisoner population 116, 87 of whom are incarcerated for killing livestock.
  • 1888 — Last execution in June. Carlabangunburra (703) for the murder of Indyco. - Aboriginal prison population 60.
  • 1889 — Two boys, Paddy Maloney (778) and Bagpipe (779), aged 10 and 11 respectively, charged with ‘hut robbing’ at Esperance Bay and sentenced to the Reformatory for six months with hard labour. They remain in detention for almost one month prior to being discharged to Bishop Salvado at the New Norcia mission. Correspondence associated with the case confirms the fact that another ‘little native boy’ had served time at the reformatory previously. Although these cases were unusual the severity of the sentences were similar to those imposed on non-Aboriginal boys.
  • 1892 — Influenza epidemic but without casualties.
  • 1895 — Prison population falls to its lowest figure for some time with an average of 40 for the year, significantly less than the number needed to ensure that the prison remained economical to run.
  • 1896 — Parliamentary question regarding the opening to the general public following the removal of prisoners to the Abrolhos Islands to work as labourers.
  • 1897 — Influenza outbreak. This outbreak is mainly confined to prisoners from the north of the state who were unaccustomed to the cold winter conditions. 30 Aboriginal prisoners die with 17 in August alone.
  • 1898 — Death of Nardorook the last prisoner to die from illness (pneumonia). He was 45 years old. 
    • Tadpole, a fifteen-year old boy, sentenced by the resident magistrate at Williams to 12 months detention at the Reformatory. He remained in detention for two weeks and was discharged by order of the visiting medical officer Dr Hope.
  • 1899 — Royal Commission into Prisons announced. 

Wadjemup 1900-1931

  • 1900 — Two Aboriginal prisoners Alboomera alias Willie (98,172, 6186) and Malmurchie (99) arrive from the Kimberley wearing only a shirt each and chained by the neck. Aboriginal prison population 50.
  • 1901 — The incarnation of the only female prisoner, Fanny Walganda (229) for a short period. 
    • Boys Reformatory School closed. The juveniles were sent to the Salvation Army Senior Industrial School at Collie.
  • 1902 — The Colonial Secretary recommends the closure of the prison and removal of the Aboriginal prisoners to the north of the State. 
    • Parliamentary inspection occurs with a view to closing the Aboriginal prison ‘once harvesting of the crops had taken place’.
    • Good conduct long-term non-Aboriginal prisoners from Fremantle Prison sent to work on improvements.
    • Salt House closes due to the low number of Aboriginal prisoners.
  • 1903 — Prisons Bill Debate – amendment to abolish Rottnest as a prison for Aboriginal people passes. Average number prisoners during the year 14. The highest number at any one time 25.
  • 1904 — Rottnest ‘officially closed’ as an Aboriginal prison and proclaimed a Goal within the meaning of the Prisons Act 1903.
  • 1905 — German anthropologist and collector Dr Hermann Klaatsch conducts anatomical studies and photographing the prisoners. Information returned to Germany.
  • 1906 — Noted ethnographer Daisy Bates makes the first of her two visits to the Island collecting tribal information and compiling genealogies.
    • Noted academic Ellen Lawson (Nellie) Walker visits and engages in anatomical studies.
  • 1907 — 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. 
    • A comprehensive survey undertaken by AJ Lewis of the Lands Department identifies the existence of a cemetery both within his field book and on a preparatory plan adjoining the ‘recognised’ cemetery containing non-Aboriginal people.
  • 1909 — The Premier announces the proposed closure of the prison pending the completion of improvements to the buildings to allow for public accommodation.
    • For using his native language Henry Narriel (7528) is reprimanded and restricted to bread and water for three days.
  • 1910 — The Colonial Secretary supports converting the Quod into accommodation for tourists. Prisoners move to temporary camping facilities at ‘the Neck’ situated 8 km west of the main settlement to begin new road works. The Colonial Secretary, who advocated for the move, also recommends the establishment of a new ‘wood and iron prison’ for Aboriginal prisoners, to attend to the ongoing maintenance and the removal of all white prisoners’. Prison population 56, Aboriginal descent 20 and 36 good conduct non-Aboriginal men. 
  • 1911 — Prisoners return from their camping facilities to the main settlement on instruction following a visit from the Minister. By mid-year prisoners accommodated in two large separate dormitories. The Aboriginal dormitory being inferior to that occupied by the non-Aboriginal prisoners.
    • The Comptroller of Prisons, Queensland, Charles Edward de Fonblanque appointed a Royal Commissioner to enquire into the administration of Fremantle Prison and during the enquiry visited Wadjemup.
  • 1912 — An Aboriginal life-saving brigade established and trained in the use of rocket fired equipment. The team remained in existence for several years one member replacing another as their sentence expired.
    • Daisy Bates returns to Perth following an extended visit to remote areas in Western Australia during which time she collects additional cultural and genealogical information.
    • Aboriginal prisoners still accommodated in a temporary ‘prison of small dimensions’ within the settlement area.
    • Camping area fronting Thompson and Bickley Bays closes in favour of the ‘Plantation’ adjacent to the settlement. The new site described as ‘well shaded’ and near to the natural bathing pool and the newly erected amenities.
    • Materials for the construction of a temporary shelter shed to accommodate both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal prisoners during the winter months arrives. The prisoners provide the labour for the construction of the building.
    • New prison together with cookhouse, wash house, woodshed and temporary warder’s accommodation known as the Salt House Prison constructed by prisoners under the direction of a training instructor. The Public Works Department expenditure to complete this work amounted to 692 pounds.
  • 1913 — Allen Lester Buckmaster, Officer in Charge, stated ‘this Prison as it is so termed, is nothing less than a working camp of Aboriginal prisoners, whom the government has placed at the disposal of the Tourist Department’ in response to criticisms received by Frank Nicholas, visiting justice to Fremantle and Rottnest prisons.
  • 1915 — Almost 1100 German, Serbian and Croatian internees arrive, some opting to undertake the arduous tasks such as carting materials for which they were paid two shillings per day. Aboriginal prisoners allocated to the same tasks were unpaid.
    • Principal warder recommends the removal of prisoners from the island ‘during the tourist season’ but the Aboriginal prisoners remain.
  • 1916 — Proposal to establish a new ‘white and native prison’ of around 120 acres (48 hectres) in area and enclosed by a cyclone fence to be situated to the immediate south of Lake Bagdad prepared. Prisoners clear the proposed site and commence the quarrying of material. By the end of the year 23 corrugated huts, previously occupied by internees, were hauled to a site near the Aboriginal prison adjacent to the Salt House.
  • 1917 — Sydney Edwin Smith of the Survey Department engaged to examines a site for a new Reformatory Prison.
    • By mid-February nine huts are hauled from the Salt House site to the new prison site.
    • Over two days the entire prison population is engaged in extinguishing a bush fire. Prisoners each rewarded with a tin of meat for their efforts.
    • Declared an A-Class Reserve for tourism.
    • Rottnest Board of Control appointed to manage the Island.
    • Prison population 40: 20 Aboriginal, 20 non-Aboriginal.
  • 1918 — Seeking atonement for provocation and humiliation sustained over time Aeirbundy alias Albert Jackson (9642) kills Wooby alias Jimmy Dibbs (6978). Charged with wilful murder he 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 three occasions prior to his death at the prison hospital in December the following year.
  • 1919 — Aboriginal prisoners assist to contain roaring bushfires that threaten to envelop the Island.
    • A plan for a temporary Reformatory prison adjacent to Lake Bagdad completed by James Stoddard, a surveyor with the Public Works Department.
    • A prison reserve proclaimed for the reformatory prison by His Excellency Sir William Macartney the Governor of WA.
    • 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 the production of ‘a very excellent sample of wheat’.
  • 1921 — Decline in the number of prisoners sentenced to the Reformatory sees the facility close and a replacement established on the mainland.
  • 1922 — Cabinet approved the closure of Wadjemup as a prison.
    • Nine long-term Aboriginal prisoners transferred to Fremantle Prison where they are joined by two other prisoners, Hinajar alias Roger (10993) and Jimmy Newman (4699) prior to being transported to the Broome Goal. Their removal aligned to the growing number of tourist visitors.
    • Reformatory Prison to be closed and prisoners temporarily transferred to Fremantle.
    • Rottnest Island Board assumes responsibility for infrastructure.
  • 1923 — Return of good conduct prisoners to complete necessary works.
  • 1924 — Questions raised in Legislative Assembly regarding the use of prison labour by ‘non-government’ residents.
  • 1927 — 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. 
  • 1931 — The last prisoner Maitland Narrier is escorted to the mainland in December. 
  • 1936 — Daisy Bates in her 1938 semi-autobiography The Passing of the Aborigines, refers to a man named Jingooroo dying and his grave being ‘added to the many hundreds on the Island.’ 

Wadjemup 1932 -2020

  • 1938 — Kingstown Army Barracks completed. 
  • 1939 — Four thousand troops of the 5th and 10th Australian Garrisons arrive.
  • 1940 — Defence Department take control. Civilian women and children evacuated.
  • 1945 — Re-opens for tourism.
  • 1953 — Anecdotal reference to the existence of a ‘little native cemetery enclosed by a low line-stone wall’ in a book titled Isle of Girls by popular authoress Eleanor Smith.
  • 1959 — Salt Works demolished.
  • 1962 — Work team accidently uncover a number of graves in an area about 50 metres in diameter near the T-junction of the golf-course road and the road that runs between the lodge resort and Garden Lake. The remains are buried in a sitting position in rows of trenches about 60cm apart.
  • 1970 — Burial ground acknowledged in the manager’s report to the Rottnest Island Authority Board stating that there were ‘hundreds of skeletons’ in the area to the immediate north of the Quod. The discovery was reported to the Protector of Aborigines.
  • 1985 — The location of the Aboriginal burial ground where around 400 Aboriginal men are buried is identified by the Aboriginal Sites Department.
    • Rottnest Island Management Plan Report delivered. Recommendations include the recognition of the Aboriginal burial site and the development of guidelines for future development.
  • 1986 — Confirmation as to the area of the burial ground with the discovery of bones within the old prison quod and the infirmary.
  • 1988 — Proposal to redevelop and extend the tourist potential of the Quod met with protests from over 200 Aboriginal people. Concerns about the neglect of the cemetery site (previously used as a holiday camping ground) raised.
  • 1988 — Administration of Wadjemup handed to the Rottnest Island Authority Board.
  • 1989 — Work ceased on Rottnest Lodge due to the 19th century Aboriginal burial site in the area. 
    • Workers locate cultural items, including a glass spearhead and a message stick.
    • Aboriginal people seek to have the area declared a ‘sacred site’- application rejected by the Supreme Court.
  • 1990 — Aboriginal Sites Department requests Curtin University to assist to locate the extent of the burial site
  • 1992 — The location of the Aboriginal burial site location is re-fenced to provide permanent protection.
  • 1993 — Premier Richard Court addresses a State-wide Aboriginal representative group during the year of Indigenous Peoples and acknowledges Wadjemup to be the largest Aboriginal deaths in custody burial site in Australia.
  • 1994 — Proposal to acknowledge the significance of Wadjemup to the Aboriginal community throughout the state presented to the Premier.
  • 1995 — Chronological History of Rottnest Island published by the Government of Western Australia.
  • 1997 — The highly acclaimed book by Neville Green and Susan Moon, Far From Home, is published.
  • 1998 — Two hundred 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 work.
  • 2006 — First Aboriginal person, Karen Jacobs, appointed to the Rottnest Island Authority Board.
  • 2007 — Camping area removed and relocated away from the Aboriginal Burial Ground northwest of the Quod.
  • 2009 — First Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) focusing on aspects such as cultural understanding, creation of employment opportunities and educative signage adopted with Aboriginal people from throughout the State in attendance. 
  • 2012 — A revised RAP recommits the Rottnest Island Authority Board to continue the intent outlined in the original document.
  • 2014 — Short film Wadjemup: Black Prison White Playground produced by Aboriginal film maker Glen Stasiuk detailing both the history of incarceration and more recent developments is released.
  • 2017 — 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.
  • 2018 — The Quod closes as tourist accommodation.
  • 2020 — Consultation commences to memorialise the Aboriginal history of Wadjemup.
Page reviewed 11 June 2021