Aborigines struggle for Rottnest heritage

March 4, 1991

By Leon Harrison

PERTH — The state government's plans for tourist development of Rottnest Island are meeting determined opposition from Aboriginal people are fighting to protect burial sites and to turn the old jail into a museum.

From 1838 to 1903, more than 3400 Aboriginal men were imprisoned on Rottnest following seizure of their land by the colonial authorities. Conditions were appalling. The prisoners were brutally beaten. Cells were freezing and overcrowded. Food and clothing were inadequate.

At least 364 men are as dying at Rottnest from neglect, disease, executions, beatings and murders. They were buried in unmarked graves in the area now known as tentland and also under the road and houses at the crossroads on the way to the golf course.

The issue is clouded for many whites here because of Rottnest's current role as a holiday resort. But Aborigines and their white supporters see no contradiction between this role and an acknowledgment of the island's grim past.

The state Labor government seems to believe that tourism on Rottnest prohibits protecting burial sites. It is supporting redevelopment of the courtyard and cells of the old jails.

Opponents of the redevelopment initially won a Supreme Court injunction preventing work on the site. But it was restricted to three weeks, and subsequent applications for injunctions have been refused.

Elders and lawmen from throughout WA attended a four-day conference in Perth in December organised by Aboriginal people at the forefront of the struggle to prevent redevelopment of the sacred site occupied by the old Swan Brewery — Robert Bropho, Graham Merritt, Clarrie Isaacs, Lennie Culbung and others. They received help from the Construction, Mining and Energy Union and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

After touring Rottnest, the elders called for:

  • closure of roads over the Aboriginal cemetery;

  • removal of houses on the Aboriginal cemetery;

  • transformation of tentland and THE crossroads into an Aboriginal cemetery;

  • transformation of the jail into a commemorative museum.

The elders issued a statement saying, "The jail is sacred because of the human suffering and the human killings ... That blood is still soaking into the ground. Each cell holds the existence of the Aboriginal people. Their spirits are in the cells ...

"Their blood is in each grain of sand by Aboriginal belief. They held their ceremonies in the darkness of the night. The proof is in the artefacts in the ground — singing sticks, dancing sticks. Respect has got to be shown."

The Aboriginal community will continue the struggle until the burial sites are protected and the old jail is made into a memorial and museum to remind people of the island's tragic past.

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