WA government project to remember Aboriginal prisoners buried on Rottnest Island

By Shannon Jenkins

June 2, 2020

Gull flying towards Rottnest Island. Adobe

The Whadjuk Noongar people of Western Australia will lead a state government project that aims to reconcile the history of Aboriginal peoples’ imprisonment at Rottnest Island.

The WA government on Tuesday said the Wadjemup Project would be “one of Australia’s first large-scale and genuine acts of recognition related to the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people”.

The plan would commemorate the Aboriginal people who are buried on Wadjemup, also known as Rottnest Island, and would decide on the future use of the prison building at the historic Thomson Bay settlement, known as the Quod.

The island was used as a place of incarceration, segregation, and forced labour for Aboriginal men and boys from across WA from 1838 to 1931. During that time, more than 4000 Aboriginal people were forcibly taken there.

Almost 400 men and boys — who died while imprisoned — were buried in unmarked graves on the island.

As part of the plan, the Whadjuk Noongar people have begun putting in place cultural authority protocols to lead state-wide Aboriginal community engagement.

All Aboriginal people recognise that Wadjemup is part of Whadjuk Noongar traditional country, which is why it is important for them to lead community engagement for reconciling the island’s history, according to Whadjuk Noongar Elder Farley Garlett.

“As Whadjuk people we really appreciate the responsibility we have, under Aboriginal cultural protocol, to lead this engagement. It is a responsibility we take up in the spirit of healing and moving forward,” he said.

The Wadjemup Aboriginal Reference Group was appointed by the Rottnest Island Authority in 2017. Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt said that while recognising Wadjemup’s history was key to reconciliation, the process has faced barriers.

“Extensive research, ground probing radar and community consultation has taken place over many years to recognise and commemorate Rottnest Island’s Aboriginal history,” he said.

“However, there have been challenges developing a unified state-wide Aboriginal view, which has meant that reconciling the island’s history has been difficult to conclude. Ensuring the history of Aboriginal people on the island is recognised is imperative for reconciliation and will begin the healing process of historic and intergenerational trauma from the colonisation of Aboriginal people.”

Elder Neville Collard noted that while the issue has been important for Aboriginal people for many years, it is now the right time to work with the state government “to recognise and commemorate the history of the island”.

Wyatt commended Garlett and Collard for their leadership in developing a cultural authority process “that brings together a unified Aboriginal voice to reconcile the history of Wadjemup”.

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