popularly believed that the island was named Rottenest in 1696 by
Willem De Vlamingh who decided that the local Quokka's were in fact large
rats. According to one source, a search of Vlamingh's log reveals no such
name. His reference to the island is 'saqen het mist eilandt' which
translates as 'saw island of mist.' A French translator mistook mist for
miss and the island was known for a while in France as the Island of Girls -
perhaps resulting in a number of enquiries about using it as a base for the
It was in the
log of one of the accompanying ships, the
Nyjptangh (Nipper), that we find the name Rottenest or
Rats Nest Island.
De Vlamingh's log talks about the island as follows:
'I felt great pleasure in admiring the island,
which is a very pleasant place. Here it seems nature has spared nothing to
render this isle delightful above all others I have ever seen. It is well
disposed for the support of man, having wood and stone and lime for building
houses, and wanting only labourers to cultivate these fine plains where one
finds salt in abundance, while the coast swarms with fish. There one hears
the chatter of birds, which makes these odorous woods resound with their
The word odorous is a bit misleading as in English it tends to mean smelly,
De Vlamingh actually meant perfumed.
After Vlamingh left it was to be over a century before Frenchman
arrived aboard the Naturaliste and sent a landing party to the
Although Vlamingh is credited with naming the island (in a round about sort
of way) it is thought that it was first discovered by Samuel Volkersen who
sailed to the west coast aboard the Waeckende Boey in 1658. He was searching
for the lost ship De Vergulde Draeck when he chanced across the island. He
wrote the following in his log:
''nearly 32 degrees south latitude there is a large island nearly 3 leagues
from the continent with some rather high mountains covered with woods and
thickets' 'It is dangerous to land there on account of the reefs or rocks
along the coast.'
Volkersen did not name the island and sailed to the mainland in search of
the lost ship. During the search 14 men were lost when a boat went ashore
and did not return. (See the full story under
The island was known as Wadjemup (land across the sea) by the local
Aborigines. Some 7,000 years ago it is presumed that the island was
connected to the mainland as ancient Aboriginal artefacts were found there,
but Aborigines on the mainland did not have the technology to get there at
the time of European settlement.
In 1831 the town site of Kingston was surveyed on Rottnest and 177 lots
offered for sale. Even though some land was taken up and a fishing venture
established, it didn't last.
One source says that the island was settled in 1838 but another source says
1831. Lots were initially taken up on the island in 1831 by R.M. Lyon, C.
Northcote and D. Scott but actual settlement did not occur at that time. In 1838 it was decided to use
the island as a prison.
Robert Thomson, his wife and 11 children took up residence on the island
reputedly to escape the attentions of hostile Aborigines on the mainland.
The venture, like others was not a success and when numbers of sheep began
to die, Thomson petitioned the Governor to buy him out and was offered 100
pounds which he refused.
On the 17th of August 1838, Constable Laurence Welch left Garden island in
an open boat with 10 Aboriginal prisoners headed for Rottnest.
A journey of some 12 miles on the open ocean was extremely dangerous but
Welch and his charges arrived unharmed, much to the displeasure of Robert
The island was now a gazetted prison used mainly to hold Aboriginal
prisoners. 'Murphy's law' being what it is, a prison for Aborigines was
built on the island and five (one source says two) escaped by stealing Thomson's boat, which was wrecked.
The Aborigines had been chained to a tree which they simply burned down. To
be fair to Welch, he was sent to the island with little in the way of
resources and supplies and had to spend his initial nights sleeping in a
One of the escapees drowned during the crossing to the mainland but the
others tried to make made good their escape. The drowned man was part of the
Swan River tribe and they became convinced that the other escapees had
murdered him. In accordance with tribal payback law they tracked the
remaining four down and killed one, the others fleeing for their lives.
Thomson now took the opportunity to berate the authorities for his
misfortune but they responded by saying he was lax with the security of his
boat and it was his fault the escape had taken place. Not put off, he
persisted and eventually got 10 pounds for his loss. Thomson eventually got
a reasonable price for his holdings on Rottnest when the Government paid him
600 pounds and gave him title to land on the mainland.
Very few people could gain permission to land on the island and permits were
issued to the few who did manage to gain admittance. It was presumed '
correctly ' that if the Aborigines had no access to boats then there could
be no escape. Despite the restrictions, in 1839 there was another escape
from the island and Welch was promptly transferred to the mainland.
Henry Vincent then took over the island and was to oversee much building,
including a Summer residence for the Governor and a new gaol. The gaol was
completed in 1863.
Vincent was accused of mistreatment of prisoners and even set-up by one of
his own warders, but two separate enquiries failed to find any evidence of
cruel or unusual punishments.
In the book 'Rottnest: Its tragedy and its glory' E.J. Watson roundly
condemns Vincent stating that it was 'conclusively proven that Henry
Vincent was guilty of gross cruelty towards the native prisoners' 'his
atrocious treatment of the harmless and as a rule, good humoured natives
suggest a mind so unbalanced by fear and cruelty as to be almost on the
border line of insanity.'
I tend to think that historians should refrain from making judgements like
this as standards and attitudes have changed so dramatically since the early
days of settlement. Unfortunately much of Watson's book (written in 1939 but
only published in 1998) is filled with highly emotive language and
conjecture, so much so, that it is an excellent example of how not to write
a book claiming to be factually based.
Vincent's own reports show a different side to the argument:
'July 1840: The natives are all in good health at present and do their
duty very well. I have not occasion to correct one of them for a long time
past. I can only speak in praise of them.'
In fact it seems as though Vincent and his wife suffered somewhat from the
neglect of the authorities themselves:
'August 1840: No candles for self or troops for two months, soon as it is
dark I am obliged to go to bed or sit in the dark ' no boat sent over with
cargo and 'no instructions'.'
While it is true that a number of Aboriginal prisoners died while doing time
on the island, they were affected more by diseases like measles, that they
had no immunity to. Lack of proper sanitation at the gaol led to further
deaths from typhoid.
Rumours of mistreatment persisted and to make matters worse a sick prisoner
died after being struck by Vincent's son (who had been employed as an
assistant.) The son was dismissed, charged with assault and served 3 months
In 1849 Vincent was transferred to Fremantle Prison (presumably due to the
imminent arrival of the first convicts) and during his absence many
buildings fell into disrepair. He returned in 1856 but shortly afterwards a
fire damaged several buildings.
The fire was started by Warder Dixon who had encouraged native prisoners to
escape (in order to make life difficult for Vincent who Dixon held a grudge
against) even showing the natives where to find a file to cut their chains.
Some prisoners escaped and not knowing of the treacherous behaviour of
Dixon, Vincent put him in charge of the search. When Dixon came upon the
place the natives had slept the previous night he set fire to the scrub to
drive them out but the hot December wind changed direction and the fire
raced back to the settlement.
During the enquiry that followed, Dixon's part in the affair was discovered
and he was sentenced to three years hard labour. This was the man who gave
evidence against Vincent at later enquiries.
By 1866 Vincent had been back on Rottnest for 10 years and was becoming ill
himself. He applied for a 3 month leave of absence. When a medical
examination found that Vincent was no longer capable of running the gaol he
was encouraged to retire.
Governor Hampton, who had until that time supported Vincent and turned a
blind eye to the reports of mistreatment on the island, now turned on his
erstwhile ally with a vengeance. He recommended that Vincent's pension be
cut and in the end, Vincent received less than he was entitled to. After 36
years of faithful service and no findings against him, he retired at the age
of 69 and only lived a further 2 years.
William Dockwrey Jackson took over from Vincent in 1866 and although a
sailor, he was not as strict with prisoners as Vincent had been. (Jackson
was later criticised for his lenient attitude.)
In 1880 a boys reformatory was constructed on the island by John Watson who
was then appointed to run the institution. The reformatory operated until
Conditions at the main prison did not improve and disease was rife among the
inmates. Two epidemics killed around 60 prisoners and in September 1883 a
Royal Commission investigated the conditions at the gaol and some action was
taken to improve the system. The commission found that, apart from the two
epidemics, the death rate of prisoners on the island was 'very low'.
Although no findings were made against Jackson's administration, it is
significant that before the year was out he had been replaced by Mr.
Because the Aborigines knew little of disease, each death was ascribed to
their tribal enemies and so 'payback' was enacted. So not only were the
tribes being decimated by disease, they were then killing each other off
under the tribal payback system.
Aborigines also knew little of the European legal system and in general had
no concept of guilt for the crimes they had been convicted of. They even
swapped their identity discs (as they also did with clothes and food) and
made identification difficult for the administration. As a result of this
practice some would have served sentences that had been imposed on others.
In 1890 Timperley was replaced by
Col. Edward Fox Angelo
who ran the prison for 8 years until replaced by Mr. Pearce who was the last Superintendent
when the native prison closed in 1903 (other sources say 1905). The last
aboriginal prisoners didn't actually leave the island until 1922 and the
last two European prisoners were transferred to Fremantle Prison in 1931.
During World War One the island was used as an internment camp for Germans
and Austrians and held around 1,300 men. During the 15 months they were
held, they did considerable damage to the buildings and trees on the island.
Originally the island had been the summer retreat of a 'select few' - who
slaughtered the wildlife and burned down the trees - with 'ordinary people'
denied permission to land there. Gradually the push to open the island for
general recreation began.
suggested that the island become
a public park and that none of the land should be sold or leased out. Prior
to the war, day trippers had been allowed to visit the island but still
needed written permission to stay over night. Gradually facilities for
visitors were developed including a tramway from the jetty to the
settlement. (This ended up being taken up and re-laid in Perth Zoo and for
many years served as a ride for children.)
In 1917 the majority of the land on the island was declared an 'A' Class
reserve and a board of management was appointed to manage the island.
With no money to improve facilities there was little that the board was able
to do in the early years and when the idea of establishing another
reformatory on the island some preliminary work was carried out before a
public outcry caused the plans to be abandoned in 1921.
The waters around Rottnest are scattered with reefs and it is a dangerous
place for ships to venture. Light houses were built on the island to warn
shipping but even so there are some 13 wrecks littering the reefs around the
When the Lancier struck rocks in 1839 a chest containing 700 pounds was lost
in several fathoms of water and to the best of our knowledge remains buried
in sand to this day.
Apart from the Lancier, the ships known to have been sunk or damaged near the
island include: Transit 1842, Gem 1876, Lady Elizabeth 1878, S.S. Macedon
1883, Mira Flores 1886, Janet 1887, Denton Holme 1890, Raven 1891, City of
York 1899 and S.S. Pelican 1902.
All manner of accommodation is available from tent sites to five star
luxury. The island has a number of great swimming spots and surfing is
popular on the western side. Bicycles are the main mode of transport and the
place has a wonderful laid back atmosphere.
Peak holiday season on the island can see the wrong sort of visitor arrive
intent on getting drunk and causing trouble, but this is no new thing. As far
back as 1923 there was a new years eve celebration that got out of hand with
around 1000 revellers getting rowdy and causing some damage to buildings and
water pipes. The mob was finally dispersed by the police.
Another incident took place in 1925 when boat owners were denied access to
alcohol by the police, went on a rampage damaging a great deal of public
In 1928 there was a scandal reported in the press about the Free Love League
and the corrupting of innocent young ladies. Headlines shrieked of 'Vile
scenes on the Isle of Girls'. Talk of lascivious acts and nude photography
shocked polite society.
The police were called in to investigate and none of the allegations printed
in the 'Truth' could be substantiated. Strange that papers with names like
'Truth' always seem to print lies.
The island is 11 Kms long and 5 Kms wide and lies 19 Kms off the coast due
west of Fremantle.
In 1938 Kingston Barracks was constructed for the military near Bickley Bay.
Defensive positions were built around the island and in 1940 the military
took over full control for the duration of WWII. The barracks closed in
In 1953 the old Government House was converted into a hotel and the Quokka
Arms was to be a most popular watering hole from that time on.
Peak holiday times are still rowdy on the island so it is best to arrange
any trips for time outside the main holidays at Christmas, New Year and
Visitors to the island now top 500,000 a year and this will eventually lead
to both social and environmental problems. Unfortunately places that are
pristine and picturesque attract large numbers of people and it is these
numbers that lead to the areas gradually losing their appeal.
The French ship Geographe visited the island in 1801 and there is a legend
about a duel over a woman being fought between two of the ships crew. One
was said to be killed and buried on the island and his grave is reputed to
be in the island cemetery but all details on the headstone have been worn
away. It is also said that the victor returned years later and left money
for a headstone to be erected.
Searches of the ship's records reveal no hint of such a duel taking place
but earlier stories speak of a sword duel being fought between two officers
of a Dutch ship in Vlamingh's expedition. While it is true that one of
Vlamingh's officers did not return home and no reason was given for his
death, no other evidence exists to either prove or disprove the story.
Although originally mistaken for a large rat, the quokka is in fact a small
wallaby. Its range once extended across the mainland but introduced pests
and habitat destruction has now confined them to islands off the coast.
are quite tame and trusting and sadly this leads to mistreatment from a
minority of stupid people.
Tall tales and true: Cat uses all nine lives.
When the cutter Gem went down near Rottnest in 1878 no sign could be found
of her crew but through some extraordinary means the ships cat is said to
have made it back to the mainland and returned to her home some days after
the ship sank.