Wadjemup, or Rottnest Island, is located off the coast of Perth and a short ferry ride from Fremantle. If you are taking the ferry from Perth you do have the opportunity to tour part of the Swan River which I highly recommend. Throughout this blog post I will be referring to the island as Wadjemup – a name given by the traditional owners, the Whadjuk Noongar people. The name ‘Rottnest’ was given to the island by Dutch navigators during the 17th century. It literally translates to Rats’ Nest Island which I’ll go into detail about later. Wadjemup is a complex space. It is marketed as an island getaway where you can snorkel, bike ride, stay in resorts, and meet the resident quokkas. On the other hand, it is also a place of tragedy. I am going to cover some of Wadjemup’s history, highlighting its Aboriginal past, the Wadjemup Museum, and then finish with some photos of the Island.
The majority of information used in this section has come from the following source: https://www.alwayswadjemup.com/. This is a very informative online exhibition curated by Vanessa Smart, a Nyoongar woman from Manjimup, and Samara King, a Karajarri woman from Broome.
The name ‘Wadjemup’ roughly translates to ‘place across the water where the spirits are.’ Thousands of years ago, the Island was connected to the mainland and served as an important meeting place and ceremonial site. With rising sea levels, Wadjemup became separated. There are oral history accounts of this happening that have been passed down through the generations. When Wadjemup was separated, it is believed that the Whadjuk people did not continue to use the Island. However, it remained an extremely significant cultural place.
In around 1658 Samuel Volkerson and his Dutch crew on the Waeckende Boey landed on the island in search of survivors from the Vergulde Draek shipwreck. A few decades later in 1696 William de Vlamingh and his crew landed only to see the island covered in quokkas. After mistaking them for rats, de Vlamingh gave the island the name ‘Rottnest’ or ‘Rats’ Nest’ in Dutch. I can kind of see the resemblance between quokkas and rats, however, quokkas are a lot bigger and look like a cross between a kangaroo and possum. Not to mention they are absolutely adorable and are only found in the wild on the Island.
Jumping ahead now to the 1800s. Wadjemup was settled by Europeans in 1829 in the hope they could use the land for salt harvesting, farming, and fishing. They opened the town of Kingstown and had quite a bit of successive with the farming and fishing. There are some beautiful salt lakes to wander around when you visit.
At the end of the 1830s, in 1838, colonists started sending Aboriginal prisoners from all over Western Australia to the Island. It formally became a prison in June 1839 operating until 1904. Then, between 1904 and 1931, the Island became a forced labour camp, an annexe of the Fremantle Prison. It is approximated that during this time around 4 000 Aboriginal men and boys were sent to the island. Part of their sentence included constructing buildings on the Island including the lighthouses and heritage cottages. Many of which survive to this day and are protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972. The photograph below is of Wadjemup Lighthouse built in 1896 by prisoners. It’s pretty unique considering it stands in the middle of the Island and not on the coast. Between 1839 and 1904, 370 prisoners died from disease and a recorded 5 prisoners were executed. They were all buried on the island. In 1904 the Island turned into a forced labour camp. Ideas of turning Wadjemup into a recreational holiday destination started in 1907 and by 1911 many of the buildings constructed by prisoners turned into holiday accommodation. They just moved the prisoners who were still there to the other side of the Island.
Today there is consultation happening between Aboriginal owners and those working to bring this history and their stories to visitors.
While visiting Wadjemup, I highly recommend starting your time on the Island with a visit to the Museum. Basically all the history I outlined above is on display in a compact, but informative way with some excellent objects. Its housed in a limestone building made by prisoners for storing, threshing, and milling the grain grown on the Island. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to see the whole museum. If you’d rather be out and about to get your information then there are some incredible tours on offer. What I’m trying to say is there are multiple ways to make sure you are made aware of the history of Wadjemup and acknowledge its past and those contributing to its present and future.
The Museum begins with an Acknowledgement of Country and then works its way chronologically through the Island’s history. Not only covering what I’ve discussed but some other stories too. For example, I had no idea Wadjemup was an internment camp during World War One for Serbian, Croatian, and Albanian people in Western Australians. Then again during World War Two where Wadjemup held Italian Prisoners of War between 1944 and 1946. My favourite object on display is this artwork (photographed below) by Mark Radloff titled Quokka and Joey, created in 2009. I’ve also included a map showing German and Austrian camp sites from 1914 that was hand-drawn by an internee on the Island.
After following the chronology of the Island, you are then led into another room that contains an exhibition on the survivors of Wadejump. It is filled with the stories of those who survived the prison camp between 1900 and 1931. It’s a very powerful exhibition and you get to learn about its history from those who experienced it firsthand. As a warning, it does contain images that may cause distress as well as a warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as it contains images of people who have died.
Everyone who visits Wadjemup should become aware of its history. That way, when you are walking around admiring the stunning natural scenery and taking copious numbers of photographs of quokkas, you are doing so informed and ensuring its past is not forgotten. To finish, here are some photographs I took during my visit. I hope you have the opportunity to visit one day! There is heaps of information available online as to how to get to Wadjemup, where to stay, etc.