Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground

State records indicate that at least 373 Aboriginal prisoners died in custody on Rottnest Island and are buried in unmarked graves in at least two areas to the north of the Quod. 

Historical records note that the first cemetery became full following an outbreak of influenza in 1883 and that a second was established further away from the prison.  The area is now known as the Wadjemup Aboriginal Burial Ground. 

This site is very significant to all the Aboriginal people of Western Australia. 

Hidden History

As the Island was transformed to a recreation and holiday destination in the early 1900s, its prison history and the burial ground were concealed.

The area was planted with rows of tuart trees and established as park land.  It was later used as an internment camp during the First and Second World Wars and between the wars became a campground for tourists known as Tentland.  Thousands of people unknowingly camped on the unmarked graves of the Aboriginal prisoners for over a century.

Re-discovery

Human remains were uncovered during civil works in 1970 and possibly on one other occasion in the 1960s.  These discoveries were not made public until a decade later.

During the 1980s Aboriginal activists commenced calls for the State government to acknowledge the Island’s prison history and memorialise the Burial Ground.  The establishment of the Rottnest Island Deaths Group Aboriginal Corporation (RIDGAC) in 1993 formalised this movement.

A site boundary for the burial ground was mapped in the 1980s based on available historical data and listed by the Department of Aboriginal Sites.  As a result, the southern part of Tentland was closed and a Temporary Protected Area was established. However, many people believed that this site did not encompass the entire Burial Ground.

In order to more accurately map the site boundary, a three-day trial of experimental Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was undertaken in 1990 by Curtin University geophysicists under the guidance of the Aboriginal community (including members of the Rottnest Island Deaths Group Aboriginal Corporation).  Three more surveys followed in 1991 and 1992 and resulted in an expansion of the site.  Yet there was still doubt regarding the true extent of the Burial Ground.

In 1993, human remains were again unearthed, this time during tele-communication works in the northern section of Tentland.  The corresponding section of Tentland was fenced off and in 2004 another GPR survey was conducted to determine the entire extent of the Burial Ground.  The team surveyed and area of ~44,000m2 (4.4ha) and found that disturbed ground that contained anomalies within the soil structure that were indicative of graves stretched over an area of ~25,000m2 (2.5ha).

Tentland was closed in 2007.

Click here to read more about the Quod.

Click here to read more about the Wadjemup Project.

Click here to read more about the Island’s Aboriginal history.