The island with a thousand stories...
The geographical history of Rottnest Island has been dominated by changes in sea level. These changes occurred either as sea water became trapped and released when ice sheets advanced and retreated, or as the land slowly rose and fell in response to changing stresses in the earth's crust.
It is believed that Rottnest Island was separated from the mainland 7,000 years ago. The sea level rose, cutting the Island off from the land mass, and it is now the largest in a chain of islands (which includes Garden and Carnac Islands) on the continental shelf opposite Perth. These islands all are formed of limestone rocks with a thin covering of sand. The limestone base of Rottnest Island has an effect on all life on the Island, including the types of plants which can grow on it, the species of animals which can feed upon the plants, and the extent to which humans can make use of the Island.
Habitats and Salt Lakes
The Island has six major habitats: coastal, salt lakes, brackish swamps, woodlands, heath and settled areas. Salt lakes occupy ten per cent of the area of Rottnest Island. Many of them - including Lake Baghdad, Lake Vincent, Herschel Lake, Garden Lake, Government House Lake and Serpentine Lake - are permanent and have surrounding beaches. Other lakes such as Pink Lake, Lake Sirius, Lake Negri and the twin Pearse Lakes may dry out in summer.
Rottnest Coral Reefs
The limestone coral reef surrounding Rottnest grew approximately 100,000 years ago when the sea level was thought to be at least three metres higher than the present day. This reef system is fed by the warm Leeuwin Current and provides a home to much of Rottnest's marine life, as well as presenting a significant hazard for shipping.
Once unchartered waters...
Rottnest Island's waters contain a number of shipwrecks - a legacy of the uncharted navigational voyages that occurred during the early exploration of the southwest coast of Australia.
The earliest discovery of Rottnest Island by Europeans is credited to Dutch navigators during the 17th century in their search for a shorter route from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia. The first Europeans to actually land on the Island are believed to have been Samuel Volkerson and his crew of the Dutch ship Waeckende Boey while searching for survivors of another Dutch ship the Vergulde Draek in 1658. William de Vlamingh, who in 1696 was the next recorded European visitor to Rottnest Island, gave the Island its name after the abundance of quokkas he saw, mistaking them for rats.
More than thirteen ships have been wrecked within the waters of Rottnest Island. These wrecks are protected under Commonwealth legislation, Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, as well as State legislation, Maritime Archeology Act 1973. Plaques have been located next to the wrecks and are complemented by onshore plaques indicating their locations.
Pilot services and lighthouses
The operation of the pilot station is another major element of the maritime history of Rottnest Island. The Rottnest Island Pilot Station operated between 1848 and 1903. Pilots were experienced sailors whose job was to guide ships around dangerous reefs and into Fremantle harbour mainly to deliver supplies to the Swan River Colony. Over its 55 years of operation, the Rottnest Island Pilot Station used a number of different boats. Generally, the boat types used were a double-ended whaleboat, a slightly larger lugger and a small dinghy.
Lighthouses played a key role in the pilot boat operations by providing a communication link between the pilot boat station and incoming ships. The Island's first lighthouse was completed in 1851 and was constructed by Aboriginal prisoners, under the supervision of the Prison Superintendent. Half a century later it was replaced with a new, taller lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill; and a third was built in 1900 at Bathurst Point after the loss of 11 lives when the ship, the City of York, was wrecked in 1899. The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Hill lighthouses remain today. The Wadjemup lighthouse is open to the public and tours are conducted daily.
A secure boathouse, established in 1846, was the first building constructed for the pilot service. This was built at the northern end of the seawall. Six years later, quarters for the pilot crew were added to the top of the boathouse. In 1859 another boathouse was built and both still remain today. The last pilot left Rottnest Island in 1903, ending more than 55 years of piloting, and a new system was established with a signal station set up near Bathurst Lighthouse for the Fremantle Harbour Trust. It was dismantled in 1904 and then erected near Wadjemup lighthouse. Once a vessel was sighted, the news was telephoned to the lighthouse in Fremantle and the new, steam-powered pilot boat dispatched from there. The signal station remained in operation until 1949 when compulsory pilotage was abolished, effectively making the signal station on Rottnest Island redundant. The signal station was restored in 2002.
There is an exhibition on the Rottnest Island Pilot Service including a replica whaleboat, now housed in the 1859 pilot boathouse. This exhibition is open daily.
A place with potential...
The first Europeans took up residence on Rottnest Island shortly after the first settlement of the Swan River Colony was established in 1829. Rottnest Island was considered to be of interest as a place with potential for salt harvesting, farming and fishing. Thomson Bay was named after Robert Thomson, who became a major landholder on Rottnest Island during the 1830s.
In December 1830, Benjamin Smyth surveyed Rottnest Island for the Surveyor General. A plan for the township to be known as Kingstown was proposed, containing 177 lots of 1/3 of an acre and other lots of 10 acres to be offered to the public. These lots were contained within the area now known as Thomson Bay and extended around to what became Bickley Bay on the site where Kingstown Barracks stands today. William Clarke and Robert Thomson took up town lots and pastureland and Smyth's survey of 1831 showed the town lots and sites for various designated purposes. Farming involved successful cereal cropping and other attempts at establishing vegetable gardens and vineyards.
Aboriginals on Rottnest Island
A long connection with Wadjemup
The traditional owners of Rottnest Island are the Whadjuk Noongar people.
The name for Rottnest Island in the Noongar language is Wadjemup, which means ‘place across the water where the spirits are’.
During the last ice age, approximately 6,000-7,000 years ago, Wadjemup was connected to the mainland. At that time Whadjuk and other Nyoongar people could walk to Wadjemup and it was known as an important meeting place and ceremonial site. Following the last ice age global sea levels rose and formed the islands off the coast of Fremantle, including Wadjemup, Carnac Island (Ngooloomayup) and Garden Island (Meandup).
Whadjuk people were present while these changes to the coast line occurred and their observations of this significant geological event were recorded in the form of oral histories or stories. Amazingly these stories have been passed down from one generation to the next for over 7,000 years and this tradition of is still being carried out today. Artefacts found at a number of sites on Rottnest Island predating 6,500 years ago provide scientific proof of Whadjuk occupation prior to sea level rise.
After Wadjemup was cut off from the mainland there is no evidence, either cultural or scientific to suggest that Whadjuk people continued to inhabit or journey to the Island. Despite this, Wadjemup still remained extremely significant to Whadjuk cultural beliefs related to ‘life after death’.
Today, the Island is known by Whadjuk people as the resting place of the spirits. The Island is considered to be a place of transition between the physical and spiritual world and the spirit of the deceased is believed to travel to Wadjemup during its journey towards to the afterlife. When the spirit is ready to leave the physical world it moves to the west end of the Island, where the whale takes the spirit on to its final resting place known as Kooranup, located on the horizon in the deep ocean west of the Island. From this traditional cultural context Whadjuk people consider the Island to be a spiritual paradise.
There are currently 17 registered Aboriginal heritage sites on the Island which are protected under provisions of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. Under this Act, it is an offence to alter an Aboriginal site in any way without prior written permission from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
Aboriginal prison history
British settlers first arrived in Western Australia in Albany in 1826 and this was the location of the first settlement established in WA. A few years later in 1829 the settlers established the Swan River Colony at Fremantle.
During the early years of the Swan River Colony, British and European colonists were being granted parcels of land throughout Whadjuk country and beyond. At the same time Whadjuk people were inhabiting their traditional country in the same way they had done for thousands of years.
Land soon became a contested resource between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and this quickly led to confrontation and conflict.
Aboriginal people frequently received long prison sentences for actions directly or indirectly related to the loss of their land and the other impacts colonisation had on traditional community structures and authority.
Almost a century of Aboriginal incarceration on Rottnest Island began when the first ten Aboriginal prisoners were brought to the Island in August 1838. After a brief period when settlers and prisoners occupied the Island, the Colonial Secretary formalised the Island’s use as a penal establishment for Aboriginal people in June 1839.
The Island was used as an Aboriginal prison until 1904 (except for a short period of closure from 1849-1855), and subsequent forced labour camp for prisoners until 1931. Around 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from all over the former colony, and after Federation the State of Western Australia were incarcerated on the Island, many of them having been transported in chains for thousands of miles. General public access to the Island during the prison era was restricted.
During this period, Aboriginal prisoners were forced to construct a large number of buildings and other structures including the Quod, Seawall, heritage cottages in the main settlement, the museum, churches, lighthouses and other heritage listed infrastructure, mostly under the supervision of Superintendent Henry Vincent.
Most of the development took place in Thomson Bay, including the Quod which was constructed as prison accommodation for the Aboriginal prisoners.
During the prison years it is reported that around 370 Aboriginal prisoners died. While most deaths were caused by disease, it is recorded five prisoners were hanged. The Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground is located within the Thomson Bay Settlement, adjacent to the Quod.
Closure of the Aboriginal prison was recommended in 1902. It officially closed in 1904, beginning the period of a forced labour camp where Aboriginal prisoners were used to build roads and other works on the Island until 1931.
Closure of the prison brought Rottnest Island’s possibilities as a recreational destination to the forefront. In 1907, a scheme for transforming Rottnest Island from an Aboriginal penal settlement to a recreation and holiday Island were drawn up by the Colonial Secretary’s Department. The former prison buildings were absorbed into this pursuit, including the Quod which was converted for use as holiday accommodation in 1911. Over time these developments largely obscured their former use.
A landmark site for reconciliation
Wadjemup holds special significance to Aboriginal communities across the State, due to its use as an Aboriginal prison and the Aboriginal prisoners that are buried there.
A project is currently underway to appropriately recognise the Quod and the Burial Ground, as well as other sites connected to the Aboriginal prison era, and determine a future use for them in consultation with the WA Aboriginal community.
A tourist destination from the early 1900s...
From 1902 ferries carried tourists to Rottnest Island on Sundays. During these times visitors and prisoners were kept well apart.
The first public jetty was built in 1906 to the south of Thomson Bay Settlement, where the former Army Jetty stood. Until then passengers and cargo were brought ashore by a lighter. A tram track was laid from the Jetty to Thomson Bay Settlement and horse drawn trams were used to carry visitors and goods. The trams were later replaced by motor vehicles in 1925 and most of the tracks were removed and relocated to the Perth Zoo. Some small portions of the track still remain.
In 1907 a scheme for transforming Rottnest Island from a penal settlement to a recreation and holiday Island were drawn up by the Colonial Secretary's Department. As part of this scheme the Bickley area began to be modestly developed for public recreation. Timber and hessian camps, a store and a recreational hall were built overlooking Bickley Bay in the vicinity of where Kingstown Barracks stands today. A number of houses in the Thomson Bay Settlement were also made available for use, and the opening season was 1911.
The Prison and Boys' Reformatory were converted to hostel accommodation, completed in the 1913/1914 summer season. The Bickley camps were closed in 1911, and in 1913 it was proposed to shift the camp reserve to the Bathurst side of the Settlement. Thirty weatherboard camps were subsequently rebuilt at the Bathurst end of Thomson Bay.
More improvements were planned in 1917. A large tearoom and store were erected near the main jetty and wooden bungalows were also constructed close by and on the north side of the jetty.
The original limestone buildings of Rottnest Island were whitewashed and this created an extreme glare. To remove the glare, buildings were progressively painted with an ochre colour that was created by putting rusty nails in the white wash paint.
Recreational and holiday pursuits have continued on Rottnest Island from this time to the present day except for its closure in 1914 and again from 1940 to 1945 for military functions.
A surfing hot spot since the 1950s...
A short documentary has been produced focusing on Rottnest Island’s most famous surf break, Strickland Bay, a.k.a. ‘Stricko’s’. It features interviews with lots of familiar faces and recaps the history of surfing on our favourite Island. ‘Rottnest Island - Strickland Bay Surfing Pioneers’ is a short documentary that explores the history of surfing on Rottnest Island, focusing on the popular surfing location Strickland Bay. It includes interviews with well-known local surfers and commentators, interweaving iconic footage and images of surfing since the 1950’s. The surfing documentary was proudly funded by Rottnest Island Authority, Rottnest Foundation and BHP Billiton.
Discover more history along the Wadjemup Bidi, a 45km network of stunning walk trails...
Rottnest Island has played a military role in both World War I and World War II and has also had post-war training functions, which are described below. If you enjoy Rottnest Island Military History, why not take one of our Guided Tours?
World War I
With the start of World War I the Department of Defence commandeered the Island for use as an internment and Prisoner of War camp from 1914 to the end of 1915. In September 1915, the camp held 989 persons, including 841 Austrian and German internees and 148 Prisoners of War. Recreational and holiday pursuits were re-established in December 1915.
Preparation for World War II
In response to increasing global tensions in the 1930s, the Australian government developed a three-year Defence Development Program that it commenced in 1933. In the Plan, Rottnest Island was identified as being critical to the defence of Fremantle as guns there could engage hostile ships well before they approached the range that would allow bombardment of Fremantle Port.
In 1934 the Western Australian Premier officially informed the Rottnest Island Board of Control of the Commonwealth's intentions for a defence program on Rottnest Island and in 1936 it purchased land at Bickley for this purpose and construction began later that year.
The fixtures on Rottnest Island were made up of the Oliver Hill Battery with two 9.2-inch guns and quarters at Oliver Hill; Bickley Battery with two 6-inch guns and quarters at Bickley; permanent Army Barracks at Kingstown (containing living accommodation for four warrant officers or sergeants and 72 rank and file personnel, cottages for commanders, officers mess, cottages for married non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and gunners, Army institutional buildings, small hospital, dry canteen, workshop, store, railway buildings, and supporting communication and observation structures); a three storey fortress and battery command post building at Signal Ridge; Port War Signal Station at Signal Ridge; observation posts and engine rooms.
Also constructed by the military at this time were six searchlight emplacements, magazine shell stores, powerhouse, directing station and a railway from the jetty to the 9.2 inch guns. Improvements to the jetty were also undertaken. When the Barracks was completed in September 1937 Rottnest Island was declared a permanent station for troops.
World War II
In June 1940 the Island was declared a prohibited area and all recreational activity ended. The declaration was intended to last for three months, but continued for five years until June 1945. During the war period, administrative fire command staff and a coastal artillery gunnery school occupied Rottnest Island. The guns were manned 24 hours a day.
In the mid-1940s, the focus of threat moved to Northern Australia, so the fixed defences at Rottnest Island were reduced. The 9.2-inch guns were put on a maintenance basis and only the 6-inch guns at Bickley remained manned. The period of intensive military activity on Rottnest Island ended with the guns never being fired at the enemy.
After the war, all military units were disbanded and the guns placed in long term storage. By April 1945 all Thomson Bay buildings had been vacated by the military with the exception of the bakehouse and garage. Approximately 200 Italian internees were sent to the Island for four months to carry out repairs and renovations.
In June 1945, the prohibition order on Rottnest Island was lifted but until October only people travelling on commercial vessels could visit the Island. Dismantling of the battery was finalised in March 1953. An artillery maintenance detachment remained on the Island until 1960.
In 1953, the Army decided that further use for Kingstown Barracks was no longer necessary. This changed in early 1955 when it was determined the Barracks would continue to be used for training purposes. Training at Kingstown Barracks recommenced in May 1955.
In 1962 it was determined that the use of coastal artillery in the defence of ports was out-moded and coastal artillery guns and ammunitions around the nation were declared for disposal. The 9.2-inch battery on Rottnest Island was saved from disposal because the high cost of removing and shipping the guns to the mainland exceeded their value as scrap metal.
In 1967, the Army returned most of its land holdings on Rottnest Island to the Western Australian Government, retaining Kingstown Barracks, the Bickley area and easements necessary to connect water to the Barracks. The Army's use of Kingstown Barracks declined gradually from the 1960s to the 1970s and then sharply from 1974, to the point in 1979 where it was utilised for only 43 days in the year. In 1984 the Army and the Rottnest Island Board of Control began negotiations for the Board to purchase the remaining Army land and buildings including Kingstown Barracks. This was formalised in an official closing ceremony in December 1984.
After successful trials using Kingstown Barracks for environmental education programs over the 1984/1985 summer season, the Board recommended to the Government that the Barracks be used as an environmental education centre.
To gain a further understanding about the military history on Rottnest Island, click on the following links to view the videos available on YouTube:
Discover what ‘off-duty’ life was like on Rottnest during WWII
Oral History by Alwyn Holder
Discover the types of coastal defences on Rottnest
Oral History by Alwyn Holder
Discover life as an Engineer on Rottnest during WWII
Oral History by Alwyn Holder
Explore inside Kingstown Barracks, Rottnest Island
Oral History by Les Smith
Rottnest Island World War II Coastal Defences
Courtesy of Mark Bush – Bushcraft
built on history...
Discover these historic sites around Rottnest and find out about the island's rich military, marine and cultural history.
Governor's Cottage and the Hotel Rottnest
The Hotel Rottnest is highly valued by the community of Western Australia as an integral part of their holiday experience on Rottnest Island. It is recognised for its significant vista of Thomson Bay and its social associations as a focal recreation point for many visitors to the Island.
The Hotel was constructed between 1859 and 1864 as the Governor's summer residence, Government House, Rottnest Island. More recently, the Hotel Rottnest is open to the public, offering accommodation and serving as the Island's favoured drinking spot.
In 1881 the Colonial Government decided that the Island would be a suitable location to reform young boys who had come into conflict with the law.
The Rottnest Island Boys' Reformatory was opened in 1881 next to the Aboriginal Prison, and operated for 20 years.
Carpenter John Watson was asked to construct the Boys' Reformatory buildings on Rottnest Island and these included a workshop, kitchen, two large dormitories, a school room and four small cells. Upon completion of the building work, Watson decided to stay on as the Reformatory Superintendent and to teach the boys carpentry, joinery and gardening.
The Reformatory closed in 1901. Since 1909 the Reformatory buildings have been used as holiday accommodation, operated as part of the Lodge.
Historic sites on Rottnest Island
- Oliver Hill Battery and Railway
- Signal Station and Battery Observation Post
- Pilot Boat Shed
- Wadjemup Lighthouse
- Bathurst Lighthouse
- World War I Prisoner of War Internment Camp Site
- Boys Reformatory
- Kingstown Barracks and Bickley Battery
- The Lodge – Former Aboriginal Prison known as The Quod
- Rottnest Island Cemetery
- Aboriginal Burial Ground
- Vlamingh Memorial
- Salt Works
- Garden Lake
If you would like to find out more information on Rottnest Island's rich cultural heritage, please visit the Island Museum in the 'Old Mill and Hay Store' or pick-up one of our priced publications from the Visitor Centre.