• Aboriginal prisoners at Rottnest Island in 1893. (WA State Library)Source: WA State Library
Noongar Elders will lead the Wadjemup Project, which will finally commemorate the painful past of WA's summer playground, which also happens to be the largest known deaths in custody site in Australia.
Rangi Hirini

2 Jun 2020 - 11:26 AM  UPDATED 2 Jun 2020 - 11:26 AM

Whadjuk people from the Noongar Nation in Western Australia will lead the consultation on a proposal for commemorating burial grounds and former prison cells on the Rottnest Wadjemup-Rottnest Island where more than 300 unmarked graves are located.

The Wadjemup Project will reconcile the history of Aboriginal people’s imprisonment on the island, focusing on how best to commemorate the Aboriginal men and boys who are buried there and the use of the former prison building.

From 1838 to 1931, Wadjemup was used as a prison island where more than 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from across Western Australia were sent for imprisonment and forced into labour.

In the 1970s, the unmarked graves of 375 remains were found at ‘Tentland’ but the area wasn’t shut down until 1993.

Up until 2018, the cells where Aboriginal men and boys were held in, also known as the Quod, were used as accommodation for tourists.

The Elders leading the consultation on the Wadejump Project will be developing a plan consistent with Aboriginal customary protocols. 

Whadjuk Elder Neville Collard has been leading the process and has been speaking with the Whadjuk community on how best to move forward with the project.

Mr Collard said he wanted Wadejump to become a place where all Aboriginal people could come.

“This has been a very important issue for Aboriginal people for many years, but we now believe the time is right to work with Government to recognise and commemorate the history of the Island,” he said in a statement.

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said the Wadejump Project is Australia’s first large-scale, genuine act of recognition related to the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal people.

“Ensuring the history of Aboriginal people on the island is recognised is imperative for reconciliation and will begin the healing process of historic and intergeneration trauma from the colonisation of Aboriginal people,” Mr Wyatt said.

Located 19 kilometres off the coast of Fremantle, Rottnest Island is a hotspot for West Australians to soak up the sun during the summer period. The Island is used in WA’s tourism adverts due to the popular furry quokkas found on the island.

Visitor numbers have increased over the years due to celebrities such as Chris Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, and Roger Federer posting ‘quokka selfies’ boosting the island’s international reputation. In the 2018-19 period, 785,002 people visited the island.

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