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Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as black prison and white playground

Stasiuk, Glen (2015) Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as black prison and white playground. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The Island of Rottnest is commonly known to Noongar1 people as Wadjemup, “place across the river” or from its colonial connections the “Isle of Spirits”. Rottnest is located approximately 18 km off the coast of Western Australia, near Fremantle, and is world renowned as a tourism precinct. Less well known is its hidden history related to Aboriginal incarceration, dispossession and death.

This PhD study includes a film documentary entitled: Wadjemup: Black Prison – White Playground and an exegesis. These two parts examine the Noongar cosmology and spirituality related to the Island and its surrounding landscape and its cultural significance to Noongar knowledge and history. They document the role of the Island as a colonial prison and the traumatic impact on Aboriginal prisoners. Contemporary and proposed approaches to reconciliation via cultural activities, museum exhibits and monuments are also discussed.

The documentary and exegesis ask: Can investigation of the history and cultural context of a colonial prison for Aboriginal inmates facilitate production of a film, documenting the memories and trauma, which will significantly assist in the reconciliation processes via museums, monuments and other cultural activities?

The study answers this question by investigating seven key areas or themes: cosmology; colonization; resistance; Aboriginal imprisonment; memorialisation and remembrance; tourism; and healing and reconciliation. The research emphasizes the period of Aboriginal incarceration on the Island highlighting the significant repercussions that alienation and dispossession had on Aboriginal families and cultural systems in Western Australia, and the lasting legacy of this on contemporary Aboriginal society.

The significance of this research lies in the way it addresses the problems and processes of reconciliation within three levels: structural, theoretical and ideological. The study exposes the Island’s history and unravels the key linkages between critical characteristics and the institutional responses towards reconciliation providing challenges for political practice and history. It engages with a body of literature concerned with the critical analysis of post-colonization and the manner in which this can engender ethical responses towards colonised and dispossessed members of the community. It utilizes numerous oral histories and interviews, including material drawn from the case study of the Rottnest Island Deaths Group and the discovery of skeletal remains on the Island.

By situating the broader public’s views in relation to Aboriginal responses, with film playing a major role, and contextualising these views within theoretical debates this study provides a unique opportunity to chart the linkages between the structural, theoretical and ideological aspects of Indigenous reconciliation and healing.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Supervisor: Trees, Kathryn
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