Rottnest Island Aboriginal Prison
Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) was used as an Aboriginal prison between 1838 and 1904 (excluding a brief period of closure between 1849-1855) and a forced labour camp for Aboriginal and other prisoners until 1931. During this time, approximately 4,000 Aboriginal men and boys from all over the State were incarcerated on the Island.
Many of the crimes these men were convicted of were minor and were the result of increased interaction with the colony as it expanded into the north of the state. If prisoners survived their incarceration on the Island, they were not returned to their families. Instead they were released in Fremantle. Many of these men never returned to their homelands. This created long-lasting fractures within familial, cultural and social structures throughout the West Australian Aboriginal community.
The formidable Quod building is perhaps the most recognisable symbol of the Island’s prison era history. ‘Quod’ is an English slang term, originating in the eighteenth century, meaning a prison.
The Quod was erected between 1863 and 1864. It was the main prison building on the Island during the penal era. Like much of the colonial infrastructure on the Island, both prisons were constructed by the forced labour of Aboriginal prisoners.
The design of the Quod closely resembles that of the Round House in Fremantle (the first prison built for the Swan River Settlement). It is an octagonal shaped building with all the rooms facing a central yard containing a well. The cells were situated on the western side, with the warden’s rooms, Superintendent’s office and only gateway on the eastern side.
The building was designed to hold a maximum of 106 prisoners, but at its peak in 1883 held almost 170 Aboriginal men. Conditions were poor, with four to five men sharing one small cell. The men slept on the dirt floor, with only a thin blanket to keep them warm. The cells were not heated and were poorly ventilated. Disease spread easily and claimed the lives of many of the prisoners.
The Quod served as prison accommodation until the prison’s formal closure. In 1907, the Colonial Secretary’s department drafted a scheme to transform the island from an Aboriginal penal settlement to a recreation and holiday destination.
As Rottnest Island became a favoured destination for recreation, the Quod building and the nearby Boys Reformatory were converted into a State Hostel for tourists. Later it would form part of the commercial lease for Rottnest Lodge. Over time, these adaptations obscured the building’s original use as a prison.
In 2018 the Quod was excised from the commercial lease and returned to RIA management, it no longer serves as accommodation and its future will be determined by state-wide consultation under the Wadjemup Project.
Click here to read more about the Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground.
Click here to read more about the Island’s Aboriginal history.