Truth of Wadjemup

Learn the story of Wadjemup's dark history, with excerpts from the digital exhibition Wadjemup: koora wordel, kalygool wordel, curated by Samara King

By Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Samara King

Acknowledgment of Country

'Wadjemup' means the land across the sea where the spirits are. It is a name the island now known as Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, Western Australia, was given by the area's traditional owners, the Whadjuk Noongar people.

We respect and acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar people, their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this island and this region.

Wadjemup: koora wordel, kalygoold wordel

The following stories were produced as part of the digital exhibition, Wadjemup: koora wordel, kalygool wordel, curated by Samara King, a Karajarri woman from Broome, and Vanessa Smart, a Nyoongar woman from Manjimup. They were employed by Rottnest Island Authority and supported by the Western Australian Museum and National Museum of Australia through the Emerging Curators program.

The exhibition shines a light on the dark history of Wadjemup - known to many as Rottnest Island, Western Australia, a now popular tourist destination. It a reflection of the curators' experiences working on Wadjemup and response to the unique cultural heritage landscape and the significant objects held in the Island Museum.

This is just one perspective of one of Western Australia's most complex histories, that of Wadjemup.

Warning

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised this exhibition contains names and images of people who are now deceased.

Wadjemup Prisoners (1885) by State Library of Western AustraliaMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Prison Establishment

In 1838, the colonial government established a prison on Wadjemup for Aboriginal people from all across Western Australia. 

It is estimated that around 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys were incarcerated on the island. Many Aboriginal men were taken to the island prison not simply as a punishment, but to deliberately remove them from their people, and their Country.

The prison itself was cramped and cold, with up to five prisoners in two by three metre cells. This meant each man would have a sleeping width of less than 60 centimetres.

“I sleep in a cell with three others. It is cold in winter. I have not enough clothes. At night, it is very cold. My blanket is old and thin.”
 
— Yathee Charley, from lower Gascoyne region, 1884.

The Truth of Wadjemup (2020) by Samara KingMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

The Truth of Wadjemip

Produced by Samara King, Vanessa Smart and Pip Kelly.

"Bones" (1898) by State Library of Western Australia, 3386B/13Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Their Stories

"Bones": A portrait taken at Wadjemup in 1898.

Following the growing population of prisoners on Wadjemup, the condition of the Aboriginal men and boys deteriorated. A commission was held to investigate prison conditions, with particular attention given to the site at Wadjemup. The resulting document, Report of a Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners of the Crown in this Colony 1884, provides examples of the harsh realities at Wadjemup using the mens’ own testimonies.

A. Nor'Wester, Rottnest Island Museum, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.33, 1898, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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The Hospital Cat & Peter, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.19, 2014.5, and 2014.11, 1898, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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The Rottnest Football Team, State Library of Western Australia, 3386B/13, 1898, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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Aboriginal men and boys were forcibly taken from their Country and their people, they were made to travel long distances to Wadjemup from all over Western Australia.

Their crimes were often insignificant, with most men receiving excessive sentences for spearing animals on their Country or absconding from places of forced labour. This was the continued injustice of colonial invasion and expansion.

Marengo, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.19, 2014.5, and 2014.11, 1898, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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"Malachi" Hospital Man, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.13, 2014.10, 2014.7, and 2014.14, 1898, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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Their Stories: Yathee Charley

Yathee Charley, from the lower Gascoyne region, was sentenced for three years in 1884 for killing sheep and stealing a pipe.

When interviewed Yathee explained, ‘I was sentenced to 6 months for stealing a pipe from Mr. R. Shaw. I picked up the pipe and gave it to a native policeman. I did not know to whom the pipe belonged.’

"Cockroach" (1917) by Rottnest Island Museum, 2017.122, 2017.105, 2017.106Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Their Stories: Wenyie ("Cockroach")

On 26 December 1897 Wenyie, alias Cockroach, with Marbyammarra and Mindim, used their free Sunday to escape Wadjemup. They took a visiting tourists’ boat and reached the mainland. The men travelled north-west, but the lack of water in the area forced Wenyie and Marbyamarra to surrender. They were taken into custody at Dongarra.

On 1 March 1898, Wenyie returned to Wadjemup and was sentenced to four weeks in chains. He wasn’t released for another 14 years.

Rottnest Island Salt Refinery (1989) by Courtesy Rottnest Island Museum, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.33Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Rottnest Island Legacy: The Salt Refinery

During the prison era, Aboriginal people were forced to construct a number of buildings on Wadjemup. Many of these iconic buildings still exist today. The Quod, seawall, museum, salt store, church, lighthouses and heritage cottages in the main town were all built in the worst period of the island’s history. 

The prison officially closed in 1904, yet Wadjemup continued to operate as a forced labour camp for Aboriginal prisoners until 1931. The main cell block and connected buildings (The Quod) were converted to holiday accommodation in 1911.

Georgie, Rottnest Island Museum, 2017.122, 2017.105, 2017.106, 1917, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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Georgie and Wooby, Rottnest Island Museum, 2017.122, 2017.105, 2017.106, 1917, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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Charlie, Rottnest Island Museum, 2017.122, 2017.105, 2017.106, 1917, From the collection of: Museum of Freedom and Tolerance
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Aboriginal men continued to serve as prisoners on Wadjemup despite the island's conversion to a holiday destination.

Enduring Culture (1895) by State Library of Western Australia, 3386B/13Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Enduring Culture

Many artefacts have been found around the shady hills of Wadjemup, suggesting a regular sharing of knowledge and culture. 

Kimberley Points (2020) by Rottnest Island MuseumMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Enduring Cultures: Kimberley Points

Glass points distinctive to the Kimberley were found across Wadjemup, particularly on the outskirts of the town and away from the eyes of the guards.

Discover more

Explore the full Wadjemup: koora wordel, kalygool wordel exhibition, which includes oral histories and short films with descendants of Aboriginal men imprisoned on Wadjemup, as well as more insight into how the island's history was ignored as it was transitioned into a tourist destination.

Many people still visit Wadjemup today with no knowledge, understanding or acknowledgment of the island's dark history.

Credits: Story

1. Aboriginal men and boys photographed outside the Wadjemup prison, the Quod c.1885. State Library of Western Australia, 5993P.
2. Aboriginal men imprisoned at the Quod on Wadjemup in 1893. Courtesy of State Library of Western Australia.
3. Portraits of Bones, Nor’Wester, Peter, and three unknown boys in the football team at Wadjemup c. 1898. Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.13, 2014.10, 2014.7, and 2014.14.
4. Portraits of Marengo, Malachi and Bones at Wadjemup c. 1898. Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.19, 2014.5, and 2014.11.
5. An Aboriginal prisoner sits in front of the Salt Refinery on Wadjemup in 1989. Courtesy Rottnest Island Museum, Rutherford collection of photographs of Rottnest Island 2014.33.
6. Charlie, and Georgie and Wooby, and Georgie c. 1917. Aboriginal men continued to serve as prisoners on Wadjemup despite the island’s conversion to a holiday destination. Courtesy of Rottnest Island Museum, 2017.122, 2017.105, 2017.106.
7. Aboriginal men gathered under the trees at Wadjemup c. 1895. State Library of Western Australia, 3386B/13.
8. Kimberley glass points, courtesy of Rottnest Island Museum.
9. Kimberley glass point, courtesy of Rottnest Island Museum, 2014.61.

These stories were produced as part of the digital exhibition, Wadjemup: koora wordel, kalygool wordel. The exhibition was curated by Samara King, a Karajarri woman from Broome, and Vanessa Smart, a Nyoongar woman from Manjimup. They were employed by Rottnest Island Authority and supported by the Western Australian Museum and National Museum of Australia through the Emerging Curators program.
 
Please visit the full exhibition for more information and acknowledgments:
alwayswadjemup.com

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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