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 1980s.
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 worra,” she said. “It’s worra, it’s menditj. It’s a sick place.”
Stasiuk had camped at Tentland. For years and years, Tentland wasthe 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 373 Aboriginal men. It’s the largest deaths in custody site in Australia and the largest known burial ground of Aboriginal people.
“See that spot over there with the Aboriginal flag?” Dr Stasiuk points as we’re walking around the burial site.
“That’s where they uncovered the first skeletal remains in 1971 and I reckon that’s just about where I pitched my tent.”
The inmates buried here were among almost 4,000 men and boys from all across Western Australia imprisoned in the Aboriginal-only Rottnest Island Prison between 1838 and 1931.
When the first white settlers came sailing up the Derbarl Yerrigan, or Swan River, in June 1829, the local Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation thought they were ancestors coming back from the spirit world to protect them.
“They thought they’d been under the sea and bleached ’til their skin was white,” says Dr Noel Nannup, elder-in-residence at Edith Cowan University.
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.”
The impact on the local people was immediate.
“All of a sudden fences were going up, people were being pushed off their land and we were marginalised,” says Karen Jacobs, a Noongar woman and former member of the Rottnest Island Board.
“Then they started bringing in a law that passed judgment over us, when we’d had our own governance structure for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.
“They cleared the land and blocked all the freshwater springs that ran through the city. 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 July 1838, with 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.
“Henry Vincent was barbaric. He would beat prisoners, kick them,” says Dr Stasiuk, the author and director of Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as a Black Prison and White Playground.
“There’s evidence he got clips and ripped a prisoner’s beard clean out. Another time he beat a prisoner to death with a set of keys.
“He would hang prisoners sentenced to death in front of lore men who were about to return to the mainland, as a warning to the community that if they break the law, this is what could happen to you.
“He had no problem with shooting prisoners if they didn’t do as they were told. 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. “Prisoners died under his watch and he’s commemorated but these Aboriginal prisoners aren’t,” Dr Stasiuk says.
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 north and east from Perth through WA, more and more Aboriginal men and boys were being sent to Wadjemup.
“As colonisation spread through to the Kimberley, it became increasingly lawless,” Dr Stasiuk says.
“As you headed out into more remote areas, people could get away with a lot more and so there were beatings, killings, shootings, people being arrested under false pretences.
“There was no doubt what it was aiming to do; reinforcing what had been done down south in Noongar boodjar [country] with the Pinjarra Massacre. 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 700 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 1880s, 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.
“Prisoners were coming on to the island from Fremantle and they were coming into contact with Europeans who had colds and flu and dysentery and other diseases Aborigines hadn’t been exposed to,” says Professor Len Collard from UWA’s School of Indigenous Studies.
“You can imagine a prisoner coming into a cell, coughing and sneezing, and all of a sudden he projectile vomits over everybody, he can’t control his bowels because he’s got dysentery. 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 watches 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.
“There are a lot of innocent people who don’t realise what they’re renting,” Professor Len Collard says.
“Have the authorities, the state government, the Rottnest Island Authority, have they got moral and ethical responsibilities to inform the public about what they’re renting? 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 1993?
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 signs installed.
All eyes are now on the Quod, which is due to be handed back to the state government in May 2018 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.
“It’s all around the world — Hiroshima, Auschwitz, 9/11’s ground zero, Port Arthur — to recognise what happened in the past was horrific. But don’t deny it. Reflect and learn from mistakes to move forward,” says Dr Stasiuk.
“It’s happening, but it’s taken a bloody long time to get there. Way too long. I’m 44 now and this was being discussed when I was a teenager.
“I don’t want to see my kids taking their kids to Wadjemup and having this same story not have a conclusion or a healing outcome. 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.
“We have to heal. There’s so many families impacted by it,” Dr Nannup says.
“I’ve found five of my mother’s people buried over there and two of my dad’s. 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.
“To this day we’re viewed as the dregs of society. We’re still having people being put in prison because they haven’t paid a traffic fine.
“They may even lose their life in there — for not paying a traffic fine! Please. It’s just dreadful. It’s a battle. Constantly, it’s a battle.”