Aboriginal affairs

Closure of former prison a victory for reconciliation

The former Indigenous men’s prison on Rottnest known as the Quod has finally been shut amid public discomfort.

Indigenous groups are hailing the decision as a big moment for reconciliation after comparing the accommodation to like ‘putting a hotel in a concentration camp’.

The win for the community comes during the annual Reconciliation Week for Indigenous Australians, which takes places from the 27th of May through to the 3rd of June.

The prison, used from 1838 until 1904, saw frequent beatings of the thousands of incarcerated Aboriginal boys and men, crammed into only 29 cells, and included five recorded hangings other prisoners were forced to watch.

The now-defunct Quod today, built by the first prisoners of Rottnest. Photo: Emma Wynne 720 ABC

Sarah Maddison, associate professor of politics at the University of Melbourne and a member of Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, says the victory is a big moment for Noongar people, but more education is needed for the non-indigenous Australians and tourists to make a lasting change.

“Anyone who’s been to Cape Town knows that Robin Island was a prison and the prison site is a museum now, tourists go there specifically to learn the history.

“In Australia we prefer to gloss over the uglier aspects of our history, I’m sure most tourists that hop on a ferry over to Rottnest to see if they can pat a quokka have no idea that they are quite literally walking over graves and that they are having a fun day out in a space that for Noongar and other indigenous people is of deep deep trauma,” she says.

Dr Maddison says a vast number of international tourists would have a different attitude to the history of the island if there were more opportunities for education.

“Unfortunately a lot of effort has gone into trying to educate non-Indigenous Australians about the more brutal and violent aspects of our history and disappointingly my own research in focus groups with non-Indigenous people has shown that even where people can relate stories about massacres and about child removal, that those were terrible things, it doesn’t in fact influence them to think about indigenous people today with more compassion or to want to listen to the political claims of indigenous people and Torres Strait Islander people in a different way,” she says.

Discussions are already underway on what will be done to replace the tainted building in its place.

Dr Maddison says this discussion is one for the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities to have, and the final decision on how to memorialise the site should rest solely with the communities affected.

“It would be wonderful to see Western Australians and other tourists to get over how cute the quokkas are and spend a little more time reflecting on Rottnest Island as a site of colonialism and brutality,” she said.

“It would be excellent if that reflection could happen in the context of contemporary rates of incarceration and WA’s pretty appalling history from an aspect of criminal justice area in particular.”

“There is great scope for this site to be meaningful for Noongar people, for other Indigenous people and for non-Indigenous people, but the decision has to be made by Noongar,”  Dr Maddison says.

Reconciliation Week for Indigenous Australians will be continuing until June 3.