Penal settlement on Rottnest Island
Ten Aboriginal prisoners were brought to the Island in August 1838. After a short period when both settlers and prisoners occupied the Island, the Colonial Secretary announced in June 1839 that the Island would become a penal establishment for Aboriginal people.
The Crown resumed all land on the Island, compensating settlers with land on the mainland. Access to the Island during the prison era was restricted. For almost a century the Island served as a prison for Aboriginal people (except for a short period of closure between 1849 and 1855) during which some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys, from many parts of the State, were imprisoned.
Between 1838 and 1931, it is reported that 369 Aboriginal prisoners died. While most deaths were caused by disease, it is reported that five prisoners were hanged. An Aboriginal cemetery is located within the Thomson Bay Settlement.
Over the prison period, the Aboriginal prisoners constructed a large number of buildings and other structures including the seawall, lighthouses and other heritage buildings, mostly under supervision of Henry Vincent who was Superintendent of the establishment for 20 years.
Most of the development took place in Thomson Bay, and of particular significance is the Quod that was the prison accommodation for the Aboriginal men. The Quod is now part of the Lodge, which is operated under a private lease as holiday accommodation until 2018.
Closure of the Aboriginal prison was recommended in 1902. It officially closed in 1904 although prisoners were used to build roads and other works on the Island until 1931. Closure of the prison turned the attention of the public and the Government to Rottnest Island's possibilities as a recreation destination.