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Updated October 25, Today Rottnest Island, off Fremantle, is a popular holiday spot, but few realise the island's dark past as a prison for Indigenous men. Glen Stasiuk, a lecturer and Indigenous researcher at Murdoch University, was just a teenager when he first went camping with his mates on Rottnest Island — Wadjemup — in the s.
He went skin diving, became inexplicably sick and had to be airlifted back to the mainland. He went back a year later and again became very sick. His mum told him it was probably about time he went and spoke to his Noongar nana. It's a sick place. Stasiuk had camped at Tentland. For years and years, Tentland was the camping area on Rottnest; the place where families and teenagers pitched their tents, had a few drinks, and threw some sausages on the barbeque.
What campers didn't know was that they were sleeping on the unmarked graves of at least Aboriginal men. It's the largest deaths in custody site in Australia and the largest known burial ground of Aboriginal people. The inmates buried here were among almost 4, men and boys from all across Western Australia imprisoned in the Aboriginal-only Rottnest Island Prison between and When the first white settlers came sailing up the Derbarl Yerrigan, or Swan River, in Junethe local Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation thought they were ancestors coming back from the spirit world to protect them.
But the visitors didn't leave. A call was sent upriver from Fremantle to the Upper Swan: " Worra! Get your family and get out of harm's way. Listen to the program Kirsti Melville Any ladys down with a Rottnest Island the dark history of Rottnest Island. This meant all the medicinal plants, all of the traditional vegetation and animals were all gone. Our whole hunting ground was gone within three years of settlement.
With a rapidly dwindling food supply, Noongar men started shooting any animal they saw — a sheep, a chicken, a cow — not understanding the white law that animals can belong to people. To them, animals belonged to the land. The consequences of this misunderstanding were harsh.
Aboriginal people started being arrested for theft, for trespassing, and it didn't take long for the prisons to fill up. Authorities could see that Aboriginal prisoners were distressed and depressed by incarceration. There is no cultural history of imprisonment in Indigenous culture.
As the problem got more serious, it was decided that an Aboriginal prison would be built on Rottnest Island. The original idea was somewhat compassionate: that prisoners could freely move around and spend some of their time hunting for food. And that did happen, in limited and varying degrees, over the years. The first boat arrived at Wadjemup in Julywith six prisoners on board. There was no prison yet; the prisoners would have to quarry the stone and build it; they slept in a large coastal cave.
For the first few months, prisoners gardened and cleared the bush and were allowed to hunt for food in the afternoons. But conditions deteriorated when Henry Vincent began his long reign as superintendent. The mining of limestone and building of the prison began. Vincent was loose with his use of the cat o' nine tails.
Prisoners were worked ruthlessly in the heat, inadequately clothed and chained together at night. Another time he beat a prisoner to death with a set of keys. He chained them up at night with a long pole system. It was hell on earth. Vincent still has a cottage and a street named after him, and plaques in his honour. While conditions became more grim at the Rottnest Island Prison, the same was true for Aboriginal people back on the mainland. As the colonial frontier spread further Any ladys down with a Rottnest Island and east from Perth through WA, more and more Aboriginal men and boys were being sent to Wadjemup.
What happened with Midgegooroo and with Yagan is one way to disconnect and remove Aboriginal lore men from their countries and absolutely break the last bastion of resistance. These men and boys were arrested, often on trumped-up charges, chained together around the neck, hands and feet and marched to the nearest police station. One of the worst cases involved 40 men and women being chained together at Bidyadanga and forced to walk kilometres south to Roebourne. They faced a legal system they didn't understand, often without legal representation, and were sent on boats down to Fremantle.
Men from inland language groups were terrified by the ocean, a completely foreign body of water. By the s, more men were arriving at Rottnest Island than ever before and conditions were at their worst. Overcrowding peaked and disease was rife. Tiny cells were jammed with up to 10 men. There were no toilets, no beds and the damp floors were made of dirt. The cells were filthy and freezing cold in the winter. Disease spread rapidly — mostly measles and influenza — and at least 60 men died one winter.
They're in this six by 10 foot square: where you gonna go to? More than a hundred years later, a friend of mine is staying at the island's most upmarket accommodation — The Rottnest Lodge. She wakes up terrified in the middle of the night from a nightmare in which she's Any ladys down with a Rottnest Island blood run down the walls.
It turns out the room she's sleeping in is a former cell in the infamous Rottnest Island Prison Quod. Or not? Nearby is the old hospital turned morgue, where hundreds of men died. It's now used as a kitchen for the staff who live on the island. It's doubtful the staff know the horrors that unfolded inside. This is the great incongruity of this island — its startling beauty, the way cares just fall away when, on approach, you see its waters and white sands sparkling, and the dark, devastating and embarrassingly invisible history.
Take Tentland. How could it be that our largest deaths in custody site, the largest known Aboriginal burial ground in Australia, could be allowed to become a camping site? How could it be that it took more than 20 years and multiple discoveries of skeletal remains before it was shut down in ? Australia hasn't done a very good job of remembering and acknowledging past trauma, but Rottnest Island is a masterclass in forgetting. Change is on its way, though.
The burial ground has recently undergone a transformation, with a landscaped path marking an "indicative" perimeter and interpretive s installed. All eyes are now on the Quod, which is due to be handed back to the state government in May when the current lease expires. Hopes are high that it will become a centre of remembrance, a place of healing.
When that will happen and who will fund it are still up in the air. But don't deny it. Reflect and learn from mistakes to move forward," says Dr Stasiuk. Way too long. I'm 44 now and this was being discussed when I was a teenager. I don't want to go through another generation of this. The trauma of the state's early years still resonates amongst WA's Aboriginal population, and the marginalisation continues.
What do I tell my grandchildren? It's a place that's like a battlefield and the rest of the community don't know. We try to tell our children and keep it alive but no-one even recognises it. We're still having people being put in prison because they haven't paid a traffic fine.
It's just dreadful. It's a battle. Constantly, it's a battle. Topics: historyindigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islanderindigenous-cultureprisons-and-punishmentfremantlewaaustralia. First posted October 25, More stories from Western Australia. If you have inside knowledge of a topic in the news, contact the ABC. ABC teams share the story behind the story and insights into the making of digital, TV and radio content. Read about our editorial guiding principles and the standards ABC journalists and content makers follow.
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Supplied: State Library of Victoria.
Photo: Aboriginal prisoners in the courtyard of the Rottnest Island Prison, circa Supplied: State Library of WA. Photo: Aboriginal prisoners in chains, WA. Photo: Rottnest Island became a tourist destination during the 20th century. Photo: Cottages that once housed prison guards are now used as tourist accommodation. Photo: Today, Rottnest Island is a popular holiday destination. Top Stories 'Total deviousness': Witnesses recount 'suspicious' inferno in the Luna Park Ghost Train Felicity was kept as a 'slave', caged and tattooed.
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