Rottnest Island

History Council Advocacy statement on Rottnest Island heritage

The History Council of Western Australia recognises the multiple layers of history and heritage of Rottnest Island which co-exist with its documented natural heritage values. Aboriginal experiences, maritime history, colonial experiences, military history (World War 1 and World War 2) and economic and environmental uses all form part of this layering.

Rottnest Island, called Wadjemup (Isle of spirits) by the local Noongar people, has a spiritual link not only with the traditional custodians but also from its uses as an Aboriginal Prison from 1838 until 1903. Approximately 4,000 Aboriginal male prisoners from all over Western Australia were sent to Rottnest and about 10 per cent of these men died on the island. The Aboriginal history and presence on the Island is not only represented by the Quod and adjoining Aboriginal burying ground, but also in the many colonial buildings and lighthouses built with Aboriginal labour. At the end of the 19th century substantial numbers of European and colonial born delinquents were sent to the “Reformatory” on Rottnest Island to avoid their supposed “contamination” in Fremantle or Perth prisons.

Rottnest Island featured in Dutch, French and British explorations of the Great South Land with a documented historical record of charts and journals. The number of shipwrecks scattered around the island attest to the numerous reefs and difficulty faced by shipping attempting to approach Fremantle. During the mid 1800s a pilot boat service was established on Rottnest Island. Two lighthouses also operated on the island: the original lighthouse built by Aboriginal convicts, later replaced by the Wadjemup Lighthouse, and a second lighthouse on Bathurst Point built following the sinking of the City of York in 1899.

The military history of Rottnest began with Imperial troops garrisoned as part of the prison establishment and as aides to the Governor, who established a summer residence on the island in 1848. A camp in Thomson Bay was established for ‘enemy aliens’ during the Great War.  During World War II gun batteries and associated coast defence infrastructure (railways, radar, search lights, airfield and camps) on the island were part of a series of gun placements along the West Australian coast at Point Peron, Fremantle Harbour, Leighton and Garden Island. Italian prisoners of war were also kept on the island before they were repatriated at the end of the war. Kingstown Barracks continued to house soldiers training on the island until the military sold the barracks in 1984.

The island has been used for agriculture, fishing, salt collection and tourism during the nineteenth and twentieth century. A summer residence for the Governor of Western Australia was designed by Richard Jewell and constructed between 1858 and 1864. The colonial governor and his family were early tourists to the island.  With the closing of the Aboriginal Prison in 1904, Rottnest Island began to be   developed as a tourist destination. The Governor’s residence was converted to public accommodation in 1919, the same time as the opening of the first purpose built tourist bungalows.

The natural heritage values of Rottnest received formal recognition when the Island was declared an A Class Reserve in 1917. The changing land use and growth of tourism has placed pressure on the wildlife and the fragile environment of the island both terrestrial and maritime. Efforts are ongoing to manage diverse interests and expectations.

There are many facets to the Rottnest story that could be woven around the main theme of power relations. These stories include the Aboriginal prison, the convict buildings, the Boys’ Reformatory, the internment camps and prisoner of war camps during both world wars. In addition, the streetscape of Rottnest uniquely preserves the architecture of the 19th century. There are a wealth of stories that can be told on maritime history and environment history. This layering of history needs to be presented in an informed, consistent and sympathetic manner in the context of ongoing operations of a vibrant tourism destination with associated commercial and recreational activities.

The History Council recognises that:

  • Our advocacy position on heritage generally is that any new legislation is required to take a holistic approach to heritage. This includes Indigenous, historical, archaeological and environmental heritage;
  • Rottnest Island / Wadjemup warrants recognition, protection, interpretation and promotion as a nationally significant site of historic, environmental, archaeological and Indigenous heritage to be appreciated and enjoyed by present and future generations;
  • The island represents a unique cultural heritage site, which provides the opportunity to engage with cultural heritage and environmental tourism on an international level;
  • A member with history/heritage expertise would be an asset to strategic management by the Rottnest Island Authority Board;
  • A senior management staff position requiring academic qualifications in history/heritage would be an asset to operational management by the Rottnest island Authority;
  • The delivery of interpretive and educational experiences to visitors on the island by both staff and volunteers should be consistent, accurate and engaging;
  • Full advantage should be taken by partnering with the History Council, History Teachers Association or similar organisations to achieve this end; and
  • The principles presented in the History Council Advocacy position on Aboriginal Heritage should be applied to Aboriginal heritage issues relevant to Wadjemup and the broader Aboriginal history of the Island.

August 2012