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