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Special issue

Rottnest Island Black Prison

La prison aborigène de l’île de Rottnest
Glen Stasiuk

Résumés

L'île de Rottnest est connue des Noongar sous le nom de Wadjemup, «endroit de l'autre côté de la rivière» ou sous le nom de «l'île des esprits», en raison de son passé colonial. L’île de Rottnest est située à environ 18 km au large des côtes du Western Australia, près de Fremantle, et est une destination touristique prisée. L’histoire cachée de l’incarcération, de la dépossession et de la mort des populations indigènes dans cette prison, inspirée du Panoptique, est moins connue. Pour forger le concept de panoptisme, Foucault s’est basé sur l'idée du réformateur social et philosophe Jeremy Bentham, qui au XVIIIe siècle a expliqué que les prisonniers pouvaient être contrôlés et réformés en créant l'illusion qu'ils étaient à tout moment sous surveillance. Cet article examine l’influence du Panoptique sur l’une des plus anciennes cultures du monde - les Aborigènes du Western Australia - qui ont été, à partir de 1864, incarcérés dans un bâtiment appelé Quod. L’expérience de l’incarcération a déshumanisé, dépossédé et colonisé les populations fières et indépendantes.

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Introduction

  • 1 AKA Nyungar, Noongah, Nyoongah, Nyoongar, Nyungah, Noonga and Yoongar

1Noongar1 people, the fourteen tribal groups of the southwest of Western Australia, commonly know the island of Rottnest as Wadjemup, “place across the river” or from its colonial connections the “Isle of Spirits”. Rottnest is located approximately 18 km off the coast of Western Australia, near Fremantle, and is world-renowned as a tourism precinct. Less well known is its hidden history related to Aboriginal incarceration, dispossession and death. Rottnest Island has had many (colonial) names, many stories of European discovery, shipwrecks and settlement, and many stories (or “Quokka selfies”) from today’s visitors enjoying the delights of the Island and its vista. What people often neglect and “push to the side” is its Aboriginal – or more specifically its Noongar history, cultural importance, cosmology and name: Wadjemup. What is harder to disregard, (even though over the years attempts have been made), is its colonial links to the Aboriginal community; namely the Rottnest Island prison in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The colonial stories are regrettable and sorrowful. Fortunately, families, anthropologists, historians have recorded, archived and made them publicly accessible. Here, I write about the island’s cultural ties and cosmological roots, and its penal past, associated with the Panopticon.

2The Panopticon, designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, was an institutional building within a system of control. The Panopticon allows a single security guard to observe all prisoners without the inmates knowing whether anyone is watching them. According to McMillan, Bentham’s initial work on the Panopticon prison and later his writing on the Constitutional Code (1830) was transformative. His prison design would:

  • 2 Barton, B.F. and Barton, M.S., “Modes of Power in Technical and Professional Visuals”, Journal of B (...)

Incorporate a tower central to an annular building that is divided into cells, each cell extending the entire thickness of the building to allow inner and outer windows. The occupants of the cells […] are thus backlit, isolated from one another by walls, and subject to scrutiny both collectively and individually by an observer in the tower who remains unseen.2

  • 3 A quadrangle or court, as of a prison; Quod is British slang for jail. Australian slang for confine (...)
  • 4 McMillan, Kate, Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes: Islands of Empire (London (...)

3According to McMillan, authorities built several prisons around Australia using these architectural principles, including the Quod3 at the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prison Settlement in Western Australia.4

Figure 1

Figure 1

Floor Plan of the Quod, in its original form

Credits: Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, with annotations by Michael Sinclair-Jones

  • 5 Waking up to Wadjemup, Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations Australian Government; ht (...)

4Thousands of Aboriginal prisoners themselves (some as young as eight) built the Panopticon-style prison in 1863. It had small cells (3 x 1.7m), each to hold up to seven people (often cruelly more than a dozen at one time) with no windows, no beds, no bucket for the basics of sanitation.5 It is important to add that this was not what Bentham envisaged from his project design which was intended to be a more humane method of incarceration. Further, the most significant point of difference between the Rottnest Island Quod and the traditional Panopticon design was the lack of transparency between the prisoners and the guarding garrison and a central guard tower – instead replaced with a central well.

5Previous to the Quod, also incorporating a Panopticon design and principle, the Round House housed Aboriginal prisoners before their transport to Rottnest. The Round House was the first permanent building in the Swan River Colony. Opened in 1831, just eighteen-months after settlement, it is the oldest building still standing in Western Australia.6 The Round House held colonial and Aboriginal prisoners until 1886, after which the colony used the Convict Establishment prison (now Fremantle Prison). The Round House was a police lockup until 1900 when it became the living quarters for the chief constable and his family.7 Interestingly civil engineer Henry Reveley, whose father assisted Bentham in designing the Panopticon prison, devised the Round House. This design history was profoundly evident in the position of the warden near the centre of the building so that he might have open sight of any cell from that point.8

  • 9 McGlade, Hannah, “Rottnest Island 'tent land' closure an important day for Aboriginal people”, in A (...)
  • 10 Semple, Janet, Bentham’s Prison : A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, Oxford University (...)
  • 11 McGlade, “Rottnest Island 'tent land' closure an important day for Aboriginal people”.
  • 12 McMillan, Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes, p. 43.

6Both the Quod and the Roundhouse are unusual buildings. The Roundhouse is a Dodecahedron, with 12 sides. Although the Quod design is more complicated than that of the Roundhouse, the history of Rottnest Island suggests that it is "directly related in its plan form and general conception".9 Crucially, despite Bentham’s argument “for the civilising potential of punishment, one that should be based on reward, not fear”,10 these buildings were not abodes for humanitarian purpose or effect. Instead, these buildings (notably the Quod) were witness to Aboriginal prisoners confined in deplorable conditions and subject to cruel and inhuman treatment. As McGlade argues, they “[…] are evocative of the slave forts of West Africa and connect our history and the treatment of Aboriginal people, to British slavery”.11 Reinforcing McGlade’s perspective, McMillan asserts that Aboriginal slave labour and penal convicts played a crucial role in establishing the Australian colonial state. According to McMillan, “fear defined all of the prison islands of Australia”. Further, while Bentham’s “ideas for social reform improved previous conditions, it is unlikely that his intentions ever benefited those who endured Australia’s carceral island system.”12

  • 13 Morton, John, “Consigned to Oblivion: People and Things Forgotten in the Creation of Australia”, in (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 100.
  • 15 On 13 February 2008 the then Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, moved in the Federal Parliament (...)
  • 16 Morton, “Consigned to Oblivion, p. 102.

7Australia’s history is a three-fold transition; firstly an “ancient”, “prehistoric” or pre-colonial past, second, a “colonial”, “modern” or “historical” past, and third, a “postcolonial” or “postmodern” era. This third transition is built on the concept of repatriation (of Ancestors, History and Culture). It is a time of reconstruction (of History, Culture and Memorial) and the basis of our “new world order”.13 Thus Australia was “possessed, dispossessed, [and is now] repossessed.”14 This period, post-Apology,15 facilitates alternate aspects of our history, the recognition of Aboriginal struggle and colonial resistance. Nurturing and fostering the spirit of reconciliation may help past scars to heal. Healing occurs by confronting the past, exposing the multi-narratives (and alternative viewpoints and memory) and trauma that communities hold. The State government and its authorities can be open and honest about what happened at Wadjemup; to foster a climate for the sharing of black and white history. This “post-modern” period has seen a “[…] quickening of interest in Aboriginal culture […] [and] this national heritage should be protected ‘for all Australians.’”16

8It is time to position Wadjemup as a national focus for healing and reconciliation. This paper investigates the role of the Panopticon-influenced Quod, from 1864, in colonizing and dehumanizing Indigenous people in WA. It traces the shift from Wadjemup being a place of cultural and spiritual significance to becoming a colonized institution for incarceration. In the process, the paper highlights the key role that incarceration of Aboriginals have had with the process of colonization, as prisons were used to combat and undermine Aboriginal resistance, thus to secure land for European settlers.

Noongar Lore

Kooralong Koora Nyitting Ngallak Noitj, Nidja Noongar Boodja
(From the beginning of time to the end, this is Noongar country)

  • 17 The term ‘Dreaming’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘Dreamtime’ to refer to the primordial a (...)
  • 18 Host, John (with Chris Owens) and South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, 'It's still in my hea (...)
  • 19 Host, 'It's still in my heart', p. 42.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 42.

9Noongar, like other Aboriginal tribal groups, passed down their cosmology and spiritual stories orally through hundreds of generations over thousands of years. It is as important to be guided by ancestors, who have passed away, as it is by the Elders who are living. It is as crucial to respect the stories of the “old people” as it is to teach the children the “right way”. It is as important to learn the rituals, as it is to protect them and pass them on at the correct time (and place). Oral accounts and traditions become part of the fabric of the tribal and family group(s). In a post-modern context, people commonly know these stories as the “Dreaming”17 stories. Host and Owen represent these “Dreaming” traditions as “[…] like other creation stories […] ways of making sense of the world and one’s place in it”.18 Host and Owen argue that the notion of Noongars’ mythology and their cosmological stories may seem “quaint and fanciful folklore to Western minds” but that the myth and its true place in the spiritual and cosmology paradigms of the Noongar are not “meaningless”.19 It is no “[…] more imaginative than the myth through which Christians make sense of their existence” and that like the Christian myth and religious doctrine “[…] it is a matter of belief rather than of proof.”20

  • 21 Winmar, Ralph, Walwalinj: The Hill that Cries (Manning; WA, Dorothy Winmar, 1996), p. 15.
  • 22 Storm, Rachel and Vlahogiannis, Nicholas, Endless Path: Dreamtime (London, Flame Tree, 2007), p. 38

10Noongar Elder Munyari encapsulated a fundamental concept of the “Dreaming” to Aboriginal people – and in this instance Noongar people – when he said, “We have always been here, and we will always be here.”21 In essence, Munyari is describing the concept of the “Dreaming” as being conceived in the cosmos, time immemorial, where time extends beyond the reach of memory, record or tradition. This conceptualization of The “Dreaming” or the “Dreamtime” means “from all eternity”.22

11Elder, Munyari explains this general idea of Dreaming from a Noongar perspective. He says:

  • 23 Winmar, Walwalinj: The Hill that Cries, p. 1.

Being Nyungar is being part of a family, sharing with others all the things we believe in. We feel these things very deeply, they join us together, and to our old people. All of us are like one. Our spirits are in the trees and the hills and the rocks and the waterways. And in the […] animals. When you’re born you come from the land and when you die your spirit goes back to the land.23

12The “Dreaming” bonds every Aboriginal person to their country or “tribal” boundary, in some instances boundaries, and gives meaning to their existence and the existence of those before them. It is the very essence of their being. It is part of the inner belief of being Noongar – of creation and the after-life.

  • 24 Mountford, Charles P., The Dawn of Time (Adelaide; SA, Rigby Limited, Australia, 1975), p. 10.

13Mountford writes that these myths – legends, stories, “song-lines” – are an answer if you will, to the questions that arise in the ceremonial and daily life of Aboriginal peoples and their cultures. He writes: “As it was done in the Dreamtime, so it must be done today.” 24

  • 25 Green, Neville, Broken Spears: Aborigines and Europeans in the Southwest of Australia (Perth; WA, F (...)

14This statement by Mountford is an excellent explanation of Aboriginal – and for this written piece, Noongar – mythology, legend and the “Dreaming”. It is eternal, and it is insurmountable. The “Dreaming” links the Noongar to the Aboriginal creation and gives (them) not only an affinity with the land but a personal relationship to it. It is an existence in which Aboriginal people have both place and purpose that everyone recognizes and acknowledges. Lore regulated the concept of the “Dreaming”, and song-lines and customs passed down through the generations, which senior (lore) men and women interpreted.25

  • 26 Green, Neville, Broken Spears, p. 15.

15Then colonization occurred. After an initial period of respect and interdependence, the colonizers influenced Noongar peoples’ lifestyle and cultural practices. In the words of Hammond, Noongar were “[…] made to imitate the white man”.26 The Noongar had occupied the southwest for millennia before Europeans arrived. During those millennia, they had no doubt experienced many catastrophic events; the loss of land to rising sea levels, floods, fires, drought, and changes to flora and fauna. I suggest, these changes were insignificant, and paled in comparison, to the advent of Europeans, the colonization of their lands and the dependence that would manifest itself on the Noongar people.

  • 27 Ibid., p. 117.

16Upon European settlement or, in the minds and collective memory of many, invasion of the Noongar lands was an irreversible phenomenon. Green surmises this dramatically by declaring, “[…] culture went into irreversible decline […] their [Noongar] vital harmony with their land and the ‘Dreaming’ irreparably shattered.” 27

A change had come …

European Settlement and Colonization

  • 28 Berryman, Ian, ed., Swan River Letters, vol. 1 (Glengarry; WA, Swan River Press, 2002), p. 6.
  • 29 Article in the Hull Advertiser 11.09.1829 cited in Berryman, Swan River Letters, p. 50.

17The Swan River colony was a radical venture in the history of Australian settlement. The settlement was to be for free settlers only. The British government wanted minimal involvement, that is “[…] no more than the provision of a Governor, a few civil servants, and a detachment of troops”.28 Private enterprise and investment were to fund the colony. Regrettably for the Noongar population the “invading” settlers not only had the intention of procuring and “taming” the land but also had the “[…] laudable intention of preaching the word of God to the degraded and long neglected natives of that (this) fine and extensive country.”29 The settlers failed to understand that the local Noongar inhabitants had an already established and self-sustaining spirituality and cosmological doctrine.

  • 30 Green, Neville, Broken Spears, p. 55.

18Before colonization, the Noongar tribes, shared a (mostly) common bond, purpose and religious doctrine. However, upon the settlement of the Swan River Colony, the Noongar faced unfamiliar and alien people from various parts of the United Kingdom, with differing class structures, wealth status and religious dogmas. As the colony settled and expanded, it was the original inhabitants – the Noongar – who became discombobulated, fractured and dispossessed. In the words of Green, the Noongar were “[…] a people without a future.” 30Resistance, violent or otherwise, would need to occur for the Noongar to survive.

The main area of conflict was, and still is, land.

  • 31 Elder, Bruce, Blood on the wattle : massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788(...)

19The British who landed upon these shores had no sentimental or emotional attachment to the land. For them, the land was a commodity to be bought, exploited and ultimately sold. Profit and loss drove the settlers and early colonists. The acquisition of land was the basis of wealth – measured in terms of property – and property was sacrosanct.31

20Land acquisition prompted the tight legislative and bureaucratic control of Aboriginal people in Western Australia. Subsequent policies attest to this control:

  1. Targeting of Aboriginal resistance to colonization through removal from homelands (sometimes in chains);

  2. Forcing compliance of Aboriginal people with colonial government directions;

  3. Opening of Aboriginal prison on Rottnest Island;

  4. Enactment of rationing (food and blankets) as a way of regulating Aboriginal freedom of movement;

  5. Prevention of Aboriginal access to European towns and properties;

  6. Use of Aboriginal people as (unpaid) labour;

    • 32 Allbrook Jebb and Associates P/L, “Historical Research into the Execution and Burialof Midgegooroo (...)

    Removal of Aboriginal children.32

  • 33 Berryman, Swan River Letters, p. 1. My emphasis.

21Of all the colonies Britain established in Australia, the Swan River Colony in Western Australia was the least successful. To pre-empt any plans that the French may have had regarding establishing a settlement on the west coast of the continent the British secured the western third of Australia with the Swan River Colony and the colony at King George Sound. The colony itself in the Swan River, however, was an initially abject failure.33

  • 34 Nairn, John, Western Australia's Tempestuous History (Perth; WA, North Stirling Press, 1978), p. 35

The colonists within the Swan River Colony had by 1843, began to feel the pressures of establishing the colony amongst hostile inhabitants, climate and conditions. The settler’s crops failed, they lost live-stock, found the weather too extreme and the land not cost-effective. Settlers feared the Noongar people. They became depressed and gravely concerned, with many believing that the “[…] only answer was to turn Western Australia into a penal colony.” 34

  • 35 Carter, Bevan, Nyungah Land: Records of Invasion and Theft of Aboriginal Land on the Swan River, 18 (...)
  • 36 Carter, Nyungah Land, p. 118.

22The increasing pressures felt by the settlers led to an increase in gaols, courts, police stations and police. The British system of justice was already bewildering to the Noongar, prejudiced against them, had little or no regard to their cultural laws and practices. According to Carter, “[t]he number of Aboriginal people appearing before the courts increased markedly in the 1840s […]35 and no doubt into the following decade. According to the Perth Gazette, the marked increase was because “[…] the courts were used as a tool by the British for domination rather than justice[…].36

23In Broken Spears, author Neville Green articulates that by 1850 the Noongar had come completely under English law:

  • 37 Green, Broken Spears, p. 177.

They could be punished even with death for crimes against Europeans and Aborigines. They could be excluded from towns and from their own tribal areas. They were forbidden to appear naked or carry weapons in the streets of towns. They could not light fires on former tribal lands. They could not drink alcohol (a tragic consequence of colonization “to erase the memories of other days”). A man was forbidden to claim his bride if she was at a Christian school or employed by a settler. He (an Aboriginal) could be punished by flogging, by sentence to road gangs, or by imprisonment, for crimes that he neither knew of nor understood.37

24The Noongar and all Aboriginal people throughout Western Australia became subject to two legal systems; the British legal system, which Aboriginal people did not comprehend or respect, and traditional law. Over the next one hundred years many Noongar men and those from other tribal groups within Western Australia, deemed to have broken British law, were chained and transported to a new prison on Rottnest Island.

  • 38 Dixon, Graeme, Holocaust Revisited: Killing Time (Crawley; WA, Centre for Indigenous History and th (...)

All for the Land
(Part I)
It is written “Go forth…multiply!”
the pen is mightier than the sword
Thus we shall re-write the law!
Trespassing across this land is now an
offence…punishable by imprisonment
To Rottnest!
Thus reached out colonial claws
grasping Indigenous men around the
throat with searing chains
marched across their ancestral homelands
Oh! The bitter sorrow and bloody pain
to never see lands or people again…
     Graeme Dixon
38

Rottnest Island Prison Panopticon

  • 39 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 55.

25Rottnest Prison would have a lasting legacy on the Aboriginal peoples, tribes and communities of Western Australia. Generations later the prison, and everything that it represented, would be described as being “[…] seen clearly in the contrary pride and strength in the blood stained eyes of our great warriors that were shackled and chained and forced into the forbidden lands.”39

  • 40 Palmer, Kingsley, "Dependency, technology and governance", in The Power of Knowledge, the Resonance (...)
  • 41 Palmer, "Dependency, technology and governance", p. 101.
  • 42 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 7.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 9.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 9.

26In simple terms, within the vast expanse of the continent, even before the federation of the states and territories, European colonization “[…] denied Indigenous peoples their autonomy.”40 A progressive force of arms within the colonies and then respective administrative controls and policies – including the establishment of the Rottnest Island Prison – plus the imposition of British law and order, ensured that there was “[…] no chance that autonomy could be regained, at least in the short term.”41 To a once-proud people, free to roam nomadically (within their traditional boundaries) for thousands of years, the irony was that at the onset of colonization, the land was given as a reward or incentive to free settlers. The British “[…] brought an enslavement mentality and applied it, with equal fervour, to people, plants, animals and the land itself.”42 Dixon, further writes that Aboriginal people were, “[…] increasingly prisoners in their own country,”43 and that the British had brought the prison with them to this land.44

  • 45 Ibid., p. 9.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 9.

27Prisons were part of a means to combat and undermine Aboriginal resistance, both in areas where the frontier was expanding and in the territories already under colonial occupation. Imprisonment was a terrifying punishment for Aboriginal people as there was nothing that remotely resembled it in Aboriginal society and law. The dichotomy between Aboriginal law and British law was apparent. Both enforced punishment for wrongdoings – including capital punishment of some form or another – Aboriginal law did not have, “[…] the system of incarceration and confinement that characterized British law or such extensive instruments of enforcement by police, magistrates, courts and prisons.”45 British law brought with it arbitrary arrest, chaining by the neck and inevitably these, “[…] ‘Jewels of searing chains’ would confine not just the body but eventually the soul […].”46

  • 47 Host, “It is Still in my Heart”, p. 19.

28Historically, the imprisonment of Aboriginal people has gone hand in hand with the process of colonization. Prisons, along with other institutions of forced confinement such as reserves, missions and secured hospitals, have served to incarcerate and institutionalize Aboriginal people for over two hundred years. Ronald Berndt, quoted in It’s Still in My Heart, This is My Country, wrote that “The establishment of Rottnest Island prison in 1839, the removal of children from their parents and increasing ‘mixed-blood’ population, all contributed to the destruction of traditional culture.”47 Mark Bin-Barker, also known as Jawundi, from the Kimberly, and a descendent of three tribes (Gidga, Goonian (or Gooniandi) and Jarlu) and a “stolen-generations” descendent, poignantly expresses the Aboriginal viewpoint of incarceration, removing children and colonial institutionalization:

  • 48 Bin Barker, Mark, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk for Wadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotap (...)

[…] its evil and it’s sinister and it was clearly engineered to eradicate Aboriginal people, in fact the fact remains (that) the notion of “smooth the dying pillow” (was) to get rid of the “full-blood” Aboriginal people, and assimilate the “half-caste”, and basically to eradicate Aboriginal people from this continent.48

  • 49 Nairn, John, Western Australia's Tempestuous History (Perth; WA, North Stirling Press, 1978), p. 41
  • 50 Rielly, C.W., A time of trial: the colony of Western Australia, 1839-1850 (Perth, Education Dept. o (...)
  • 51 Perth Gazette, 29.01.1858.
  • 52 Dovey, Kim, Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form (London, Routledge, 1999), p. 194.
  • 53 Paddenburg, Trevor, “New incarnation of Rottnest Island’s Quod likely as Karma Resorts lease expire (...)
  • 54 Gold, Joel and Gold, Ian, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness (New York; NY, Simon and Sch (...)
  • 55 Vessella, Luigi, Open Prison Architecture: Design Criteria for a New Prison Typology (Southampton, (...)
  • 56 Dovey, Framing Places, p. 194.
  • 57 Anderson, Victoria, “Inside view: prison crisis will continue until we hear inmate’s stories”, The (...)

29In August of 1839, Governor John Hutt gave Government approval and proclaimed Rottnest Island as an official prison territory for natives.49 In the words of Hutt, “[…] a prison with no walls but surrounding ocean.”50 Rottnest Prison was premised mainly on the mindset out of sight, out of mind and out of the way of the settlement. The Gazette51 wrote that “[a]fter the ‘successful’ establishment of the Rottnest Prison for Aborigines, the people of Perth no longer witnessed the melancholy exhibitions of these unfortunate creatures working in irons.” Superintendent Henry Vincent completed the building in 1865. The newly built Rottnest Native Prison could accommodate one hundred and fifty prisoners. Constructed in an octagon form, and containing thirty cells, with requisite offices, this new prison replaced the old one, which due to extensive fire damage, was no longer able to house convicts. Vincent’s design reflects the influence of Bentham’s Panopticon. Bentham’s design is evident even though, as Dovey wrote in 1999, “[…] the Quod lacks the transparent visibility of the central guard tower, it can be construed in Foucault’s (1979) terms as a Panopticon technology for the disciplining of heterogeneous behaviour through surveillance”.52 Hayward-Jackson a director of the Rottnest Island Deaths Aboriginal Corporation further claims that “[the Quod] is the same basic design as other slave houses — the guard can stand above the front door and see every door of the cells. The Quod did not have the pitched roof you see today. It was originally a flat limestone roof where one guard could walk over the top of the cells, armed.”53 The prisoners housed in the Quod were subject to the psychological effects and fear of always being watched. The inmates “are effectively compelled to regulate their own behavior”, described by Bentham as a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in quantity hitherto without example”.54 Bentham reasoned that if the prisoners never knew when the guard was watching them, they would need to follow the rules, and control themselves.55 Vincent had previously been the gaoler at Fremantle prison on the mainland, where Bentham’s ideas of reform through surveillance had been influential.56 Effectively the Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest, people with feelings, voices, hopes, dreams and some the cultural leaders of their tribal groups were merely “stuck in a pseudo-Victorian merry-go-round that is equal parts prison, madhouse and workhouse”.57

30Henry Trigg, Superintendent of Public Works in December of 1939 and designer of the Rottnest Lighthouse in 1842, provided a first-hand insight into the depressing psychological impression Rottnest had on prisoners:

  • 58 Aborigines over fifty were described as unsuited for the Island as they pined so much, see Moran, K (...)
  • 59 Green, Neville and Susan Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island 1838–1932 (Ne (...)

The prisoners will sit down and weep most bitterly, particularly old men,58 or those who have left wives and children on the main: and when they see smoke from the fires at the place where they have accustomed to meet when unshackled and free, memory wanders over the scenes of bygone days, they seem intensively alive to their lost Freedom, and lamentably bewail their captivity.59

  • 60 Watson, Donald L., ed., Rottnest: Its Tragedy and Its Glory (Bicton; WA, D. L. Watson), p. 22.

31Years imprisoned on the island passed slowly and excruciatingly for the prisoners. Some “[…] were sentenced for life […]” and, “[…] awoke each morning to face a day of hard labour and many petty cruelties.”60 Regardless of the day, month, or year, the prisoners, who once walked free in their tribal lands, endured the loss of two things that all men regardless of culture or ethnicity value most; soul and spirit. Cut off from their women and children and deprived of liberty manifested thoughts of hopelessness, depression and fear. Hard-line police officers on the “Frontier” who had witnessed Aboriginal warriors, defy time and time again, their forces wrote of the devastation that the Island of Rottnest was to cause such men:

  • 61 Ibid., p. 151.

[…] heroes of their earth who resisted the invader and claimed their own land and their own women, and speared the invader’s sheep as they had speared their own game for centuries, were old and broken at Rottnest within a year. Few of them saw their own country again. Like shackled beasts they died.61

This view is also shared by Noongar Elder Noel Nannup, who expresses the importance of “connection to country” and the displacement that an Aboriginal person feels once he (or she) is in a foreign landscape due to forceful removal:

  • 62 Nannup, Noel, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk forWadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotape, 20 (...)

And once again it goes back to that living hell, where they’re off their country and spiritually they’re weakened. Even though they’ve got the trails that lead back to their countries from here, they feel weakened […]. 62

  • 63 Semple, Bentham’s Prison, pp. 3-4.

32The conservative historian Shirley Robin Letwin argued that Bentham's Panopticon prison was a device of such monstrous efficiency that it left no room for humanity.63 Through surveillance and visibility, Bentham intended to promote order and good conduct. His design represented a marked shift from the dark dungeons of previous generations. In the Introduction to Discipline and Punish Foucault outlined his general project as:

  • 64 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. A Sheridan (London, Pengui (...)

A correlative history of the modern soul and of a new power to judge; a genealogy of the present scientifico-legal complex from which the power to punish derives its bases, justifications and rules, from which it extends its effects and by which it masks its exorbitant singularity.64

  • 65 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 66 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. C. Gordon (...)
  • 67 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 201.
  • 68 Ibid., p. 205.

33Through the “micro-physics of power”,65 Foucault explained how physical punishment works on the body and mind. Foucault noted that his approach “detach[es] power with its techniques and procedures from the form of law within which it has been theoretically confined up until now”.66 Foucault argued, “the major effect of the Panopticon” was “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”.67 Automatization and the dis-individualization of power, not the gaze, is thus central to the Panopticon. The “physical” Quod of the Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prison Establishment is Bentham’s Panopticon. It worked as Foucault explained in his account of discipline and punishment as a tool of power that is generalizable across extra-penal domains.68 Rottnest Island and all that it epitomized to Aboriginal people in the 19th and 20th centuries represents colonial power, dehumanization and the last bastion of resistance against the colonizer.

  • 69 Ibid., p. 205.
  • 70 Wilkes, Richard, Bulmurn: a Swan River Nyoongar (Perth; WA, University of Western Australia Press, (...)

34No wonder Watson described the [Quod] prison doorway as “[…] the entry into the valley of the shadow of death.” 69Noongar novelist Richard Wilkes who wrote that: “[t]he Nyoongar feared Rottnest because when they entered the Quod, they entered the ‘Jenark’s Mia-Mia’, the home of the evil spirit”, reiterated Watson’s description.70

  • 71 Moran, Rottnest, p. 91.
  • 72 Austen, Tom. A Cry in the Wind: Conflict in Western Australia, 1829–1929 (Darlington, WA, Darlingto (...)
  • 73 Nicholson, John, Australia Locked Up (Crows Nest; NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2006), p. 29.
  • 74 The number of deaths attributed to disease is inconsistent due to the inconsistency of the sources (...)

35The Quod and its cells were too small for the number of imprisoned men. In inclement weather (which in winter was all the time), the prisoners, once wet, had no change of clothing and had to dry their clothes the best they could. “[…] No mattress or bed of straw is allowed to natives except in hospital, [and] there is always a strong offensive smell from the Native prisoners […]”.71 A Government review found some Aboriginal prisoners working in irons, which legislation forbade. The review reported that “[…] the minuscule cells, where sometimes five slept, were damp. It was no surprise, said the colonial Surgeon, they [prisoners] died in large numbers”. 72Apart from the psychological effects and trauma of being locked up, Aboriginal prisoners crowded together in gaol were very likely to catch infectious diseases. Nicholson claims that “[i]llnesses which made Europeans sick for a few days or weeks could kill Aborigines because they had no immunity”.73 In the winter of 1883, it was as if the grim reaper himself was positioned on the island permanently with more than sixty74 Aboriginal prisoners, out of approximately 150, dying a gruesome and painful death from influenza. The unsanitary conditions of the prison Quod, combined with the susceptibility of Aborigines to infectious diseases – introduced by the European settlers – was the primary cause of death.

Conclusion

  • 75 Nicholson, Australia Locked Up, p. 29

36Rottnest was the only prison designed for Aboriginal prisoners in the country. “Aboriginal people today are still subjected to disproportionately high rates of incarceration, in large part stemming from this colonial legacy.”75 Imprisonment severed ties between Aboriginal people and their families and communities and disconnected many from their heritage, their land and their homes, manifesting a seemingly unbreakable cycle of crime and conviction.

  • 76 Green and Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island, p. 41.
  • 77 Ibid., p. 41.
  • 78 Ibid., p. 41-2.
  • 79 Ibid., p. 43.

37During its near one-hundred-year existence the establishment had changed from Governor Hutt’s vision of a training institution to a prison with a record of death, horror and despair unequalled by any other prison in the Australian colonies that housed Aboriginals. The year 1918 was notable for the last Aboriginal prisoner’s death on the island.76 Not long after this event, the dividing walls of the Quod prison cells were removed, making two cells into a room. According to Wiltshire, “[…] all [buildings] benefited from repairs and a fresh coat of paint.”77 And during the 1920s camping sites were set up in Thomson Bay and Bathurst Point for holiday-makers. More private huts were set up for visitors to the island along a dirt track in Salmon Bay, opposite Green Island.78 All of this revamp, and newly constructed infrastructure gave the island a profile as a “holiday island”. By the 1930s weekenders moved about the island and its settlement with cheerful abandon. Wiltshire describes how this new influx of sun-seekers stamped the island as “[…] everyone’s favourite ‘getaway’”.79

38For nearly a hundred years, from 1838 until 1931, Wadjemup, Rottnest Island, was a prison for more than 3,600 Aboriginal men (and boys) between the ages of 8 and probably 80. In the “[…] wake of colonial ‘expansion’”,80 they were chained by the neck and feet and brought to the island from places all over the state; the Southwest, the Goldfields, Murchison, Gascoyne, Pilbara, Kimberley. Now a holiday playground for Perth families and national and international tourists alike, Rottnest attracts around 785,00081 visitors annually. The Rottnest Island Authority continues to misrepresent the truth, and deny “[…] the enormity of what went on during those days of incarceration.”82

39For Aboriginal people, Wadjemup went from being a special place of both cultural and spiritual significance to a colonized institution for incarceration. Wadjemup became a beacon, a physical symbol of the settlers’ repressive legislative actions and policies. This process of desecration effectively cemented within the minds of Aboriginal people that they had “no voice – no power”. Tajalaminu Mia argues that institutionalization became a legacy or “rite of passage”:

  • 83 Mia, Tjalaminu, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk forWadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotape, (...)

[…]The younger generations followed the older generations and [as] the older generations ended up in those institutions […] as a natural course of action younger people ended up in Fremantle, Roebourne, Derby, Broome, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie or Albany prisons. Prisons thus connected family members; fathers, uncles, brothers or cousins.83

  • 84 Mia, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk”.

Tajalaminu argues that the high rate of Aboriginal incarceration in the state, and the acceptance of it by some Aboriginal perpetrators within the community and the Government, is that “[…] it all stems back from historically the incarceration of our men and young boys over there at Wadjemup.”84 Nannup agrees with this theory. He adds that Wadjemup,

  • 85 Nannup, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk”.

[…] was the beginning of a process where it was ok to arrest Aboriginal people, to put them in prison and not necessarily need any serious charges, and it’s something that has just continued on today [as] they’re still arresting Aboriginal people [for minor offences].85

  • 86 Morton, “Consigned to Oblivion, p. 100.

40Australia’s history has a three-fold transition: Symbolically one could argue that Australia was “Possessed, dispossessed, [and is now] repossessed.”86 In this ‘repossed’ third-phase, accounts of (Aboriginal) history can now be (re)written without trepidation of reprisal or ridicule. The scars of the past appear to be slowly healing, and the spirit of reconciliation supports the movement forward to celebrate understanding and recognition. There is no better time than now for the Governing bodies to be open and honest about what happened at Wadjemup and foster a climate for the sharing of the truth, of black and white history; to everyone. It is now time to position Wadjemup as a national site for healing and reconciliation.

  • 87 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 77.

Wadjemup (waadjermup)
Snatched from the heartland
driven from the song
Awoken from the Dreaming
accused of being wrong
Tethered like beasts together
herded to the coast
Shipped to an alien place
where the icy, death wind blows
Imprisoned by the cruel regime
not understanding why
As around them they witnessed
their brothers die like flies
The cold wind like a scalpel
cut right through their spines
Chilled the Elders to the Soul
one could only wonder why?
Why did they treat so cruelly
this race who survived so long
Far from civilisation’s brutality
singing the sacred song
Till one dark day in history
with greedy hands they came
Offering gifts of misery
and jewels of searing chains.
    Graeme Dixon
87

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Notes

1 AKA Nyungar, Noongah, Nyoongah, Nyoongar, Nyungah, Noonga and Yoongar

2 Barton, B.F. and Barton, M.S., “Modes of Power in Technical and Professional Visuals”, Journal of Business and Technical Communications, 7/1 (1993), pp. 138-162.

3 A quadrangle or court, as of a prison; Quod is British slang for jail. Australian slang for confinement in a prison.

https://thesaurus.yourdictionary.com/prison

4 McMillan, Kate, Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes: Islands of Empire (London, Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies, 2019), p. 43.

5 Waking up to Wadjemup, Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations Australian Government; https://www.oric.gov.au/publications/spotlight/waking-wadjemup

6 Conole, Peter and Graeme Sisson, “Policing in the Round House”, Newsbeat, July/Aug. 2005, p. 16; http://www.police.wa.gov.au/ABOUTUS/News/Newsbeat/tabid/1224/Default.aspx

7 Ibid., p. 16.

8 Fowler, Audrey; https://fremantlestuff.info/buildings/roundhouse.html. See also the paper by Emily Lanman on the topic in the present special issue.

9 McGlade, Hannah, “Rottnest Island 'tent land' closure an important day for Aboriginal people”, in ABC News, 31 May 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-05-31/quod-rottnest-island-aboriginal-land-mass-burial-gravesite/9811930

10 Semple, Janet, Bentham’s Prison : A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 43-44.

11 McGlade, “Rottnest Island 'tent land' closure an important day for Aboriginal people”.

12 McMillan, Contemporary Art and Unforgetting in Colonial Landscapes, p. 43.

13 Morton, John, “Consigned to Oblivion: People and Things Forgotten in the Creation of Australia”, in The Long way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation, eds. Turnbull, Paul & Pickering, Michael (New York; NY, Berghahn, 2010)

14 Ibid., p. 100.

15 On 13 February 2008 the then Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd MP, moved in the Federal Parliament a motion of Apology to Australia's Indigenous Peoples with specific reference to the Stolen Generations. The Prime Minister described it as an occasion for "…the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence in the future. We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.” The Apology passed with bipartisan support from the Parliament and received a standing ovation from the floor of the House of Representatives as well as from the public gallery. [Source: http://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/indigenous-australians/programs-services/recognition-respect/apology-to-australias-indigenous-peoples]

16 Morton, “Consigned to Oblivion, p. 102.

17 The term ‘Dreaming’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘Dreamtime’ to refer to the primordial and eternal time of creation. However, it can also refer to the particular spirituality and beliefs of an individual or group.

18 Host, John (with Chris Owens) and South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, 'It's still in my heart, this is my country': the single Noongar claim history (Crawley; WA, UWA Press, 2009), p. 42.

19 Host, 'It's still in my heart', p. 42.

20 Ibid., p. 42.

21 Winmar, Ralph, Walwalinj: The Hill that Cries (Manning; WA, Dorothy Winmar, 1996), p. 15.

22 Storm, Rachel and Vlahogiannis, Nicholas, Endless Path: Dreamtime (London, Flame Tree, 2007), p. 38.

23 Winmar, Walwalinj: The Hill that Cries, p. 1.

24 Mountford, Charles P., The Dawn of Time (Adelaide; SA, Rigby Limited, Australia, 1975), p. 10.

25 Green, Neville, Broken Spears: Aborigines and Europeans in the Southwest of Australia (Perth; WA, Focus Education Services, 1984), p. 21.

26 Green, Neville, Broken Spears, p. 15.

27 Ibid., p. 117.

28 Berryman, Ian, ed., Swan River Letters, vol. 1 (Glengarry; WA, Swan River Press, 2002), p. 6.

29 Article in the Hull Advertiser 11.09.1829 cited in Berryman, Swan River Letters, p. 50.

30 Green, Neville, Broken Spears, p. 55.

31 Elder, Bruce, Blood on the wattle : massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788 (Frenchs Forest; NSW, New Holland, 2003), p. 2.

32 Allbrook Jebb and Associates P/L, “Historical Research into the Execution and Burialof Midgegooroo at the Deanery Site Perth” (commissioned report for Palassis Architects), 2010, p. 8.

33 Berryman, Swan River Letters, p. 1. My emphasis.

34 Nairn, John, Western Australia's Tempestuous History (Perth; WA, North Stirling Press, 1978), p. 35.

35 Carter, Bevan, Nyungah Land: Records of Invasion and Theft of Aboriginal Land on the Swan River, 1829-1850 (Guildford; WA, Swan Valley Nyungah Community, 2006), p. 118.

36 Carter, Nyungah Land, p. 118.

37 Green, Broken Spears, p. 177.

38 Dixon, Graeme, Holocaust Revisited: Killing Time (Crawley; WA, Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts, School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia, 2003), p. 55.

39 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 55.

40 Palmer, Kingsley, "Dependency, technology and governance", in The Power of Knowledge, the Resonance of Tradition, L. Taylor, G. Ward, R. Davis, G. Henderson and L. Wallis, eds (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies, 2005), p. 101.

41 Palmer, "Dependency, technology and governance", p. 101.

42 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 7.

43 Ibid., p. 9.

44 Ibid., p. 9.

45 Ibid., p. 9.

46 Ibid., p. 9.

47 Host, “It is Still in my Heart”, p. 19.

48 Bin Barker, Mark, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk for Wadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotape, 2011.

49 Nairn, John, Western Australia's Tempestuous History (Perth; WA, North Stirling Press, 1978), p. 41.

50 Rielly, C.W., A time of trial: the colony of Western Australia, 1839-1850 (Perth, Education Dept. of Western Australia, 1979), p. 3.

51 Perth Gazette, 29.01.1858.

52 Dovey, Kim, Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form (London, Routledge, 1999), p. 194.

53 Paddenburg, Trevor, “New incarnation of Rottnest Island’s Quod likely as Karma Resorts lease expires”, PerthNow, 2 April 2018, https://www.perthnow.com.au/news/rottnest/new-incarnation-of-rottnest-islands-quod-likely-as-karma-resorts-lease-expires-ng-b88770018z

54 Gold, Joel and Gold, Ian, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness (New York; NY, Simon and Schuster, 2015), p. 210.

55 Vessella, Luigi, Open Prison Architecture: Design Criteria for a New Prison Typology (Southampton, WITPress, 2017), p. 10.

56 Dovey, Framing Places, p. 194.

57 Anderson, Victoria, “Inside view: prison crisis will continue until we hear inmate’s stories”, The Conversation, 8 September 2017, https://theconversation.com/inside-view-prison-crisis-will-continue-until-we-hear-inmates-stories-83735

58 Aborigines over fifty were described as unsuited for the Island as they pined so much, see Moran, Kevin James, Rottnest: Ghosts Of Wadjemup : A History of the Discovery, the Settlement, Aboriginal Penal Colony, Boy's Reformatory, the Development of Rottnest as a Holiday Isle, vol. 1, 2nd edn (Perth; WA, Horizon Syndicate, 2009), p. 50.

59 Green, Neville and Susan Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island 1838–1932 (Nedlands; WA, University of Western Australia Publishing, 1997), p. 22.

60 Watson, Donald L., ed., Rottnest: Its Tragedy and Its Glory (Bicton; WA, D. L. Watson), p. 22.

61 Ibid., p. 151.

62 Nannup, Noel, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk forWadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotape, 2011.

63 Semple, Bentham’s Prison, pp. 3-4.

64 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, trans. A Sheridan (London, Penguin, 1977), p. 23.

65 Ibid., p. 26.

66 Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. C. Gordon (New York, Pantheon, 1980), p. 123.

67 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 201.

68 Ibid., p. 205.

69 Ibid., p. 205.

70 Wilkes, Richard, Bulmurn: a Swan River Nyoongar (Perth; WA, University of Western Australia Press, 1995), p. 31.

71 Moran, Rottnest, p. 91.

72 Austen, Tom. A Cry in the Wind: Conflict in Western Australia, 1829–1929 (Darlington, WA, Darlington Publishing Group, 1998), p. 84.

73 Nicholson, John, Australia Locked Up (Crows Nest; NSW, Allen & Unwin, 2006), p. 29.

74 The number of deaths attributed to disease is inconsistent due to the inconsistency of the sources and records.

75 Nicholson, Australia Locked Up, p. 29

76 Green and Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island, p. 41.

77 Ibid., p. 41.

78 Ibid., p. 41-2.

79 Ibid., p. 43.

80 Milroy, Jill , Morgan, Sally and Mia, Tjalaminu, eds., Gnyung Waart Kooling Kulark: Released, Going Home (Nedlands; WA, Centre for Indigenous History & the Arts, School of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia, 2003), p. 2.

81 https://www.mediastatements.wa.gov.au/Pages/McGowan/2019/07/Another-new-record-for-Rottnest-visitors-to-WA-reach-all-time-high.aspx (July 2019)

82 Milroy, Morgan, Tjalaminu, Gnyung Waart Kooling Kulark, p. 2.

83 Mia, Tjalaminu, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk forWadjemup: Black Prison—White Playground”, Videotape, 2011.

84 Mia, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk”.

85 Nannup, “Interview by Glen Stasiuk”.

86 Morton, “Consigned to Oblivion, p. 100.

87 Dixon, Holocaust Revisited, p. 77.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Floor Plan of the Quod, in its original form
Crédits Credits: Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations, with annotations by Michael Sinclair-Jones
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/docannexe/image/8177/img-1.jpg
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Glen Stasiuk, « Rottnest Island Black Prison », Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 19 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 janvier 2021, consulté le 06 mai 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/8177 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.8177

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Glen Stasiuk

Murdoch University, Australia

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