Unlocking Indigenous stories

The sky is an opaque grey and the scent of petrichor drenches the light breeze. A storm can be heard brewing behind a pale sheet of flat clouds. Despite the lifetime of storms endured by Fremantle Prison, it remains strong and standing.

Entrance to Fremantle Prison. Photo: Olivia Declerck.

The entrance archway leads to a courtyard area and a few old housing units. One of these structures has been converted into a gift shop, another into a miniature museum showing a brief history of the prison and an array of ephemera. Items including a butter knife and a handmade tattoo tool lie beneath the glass of their display cabinet, once the belongings of prison inmates.

Back outside, across the courtyard are black gates through which Fremantle Prison can be seen standing upon the foundations of its World Heritage listed history, but behind its burgundy wooden doors the stories of the Indigenous Australian experience remain untold.

The Federal Government allocates $5.3 million per year to spend on heritage listed sites in Australia. In mid-May, it awarded Fremantle Prison a $320,000 grant to fund an Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan, as well as a $91,000 grant for an Accessibility and Inclusion Plan.

Fremantle Prison’s heritage interpretation officer, Dr Oonagh Quigley, has a vibrant voice and leaves her listeners feeling that she is committed to pursuing the discoveries the research program is yet to uncover. “There’s a lot of work that has to happen at the Fremantle Prison, either with the buildings themselves and conservation, or with other things like making the place more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

She’s been in the role for 18 months and says the main thing about historical interpretation is finding and choosing stories to tell. She says there is currently a big gap in the overall story, as they don’t know enough about the Aboriginal inmates.

“Whenever the Commonwealth’s heritage grants program comes up, we think about what we need to get done on site, and we have a huge list of priorities, so there’s always something that can be done. It’s good that there’s different government funding sources that can support us.”

Fremantle Prison was built between 1852 and 1859 by 10,000 men who had been transported to Western Australia from the UK and Ireland. It was used as a penitentiary from early 1855 until October of 1991 and it was listed on the State Register of Heritage Places in January of the year following its closure.

Andrea Witcomb is a professor of cultural heritage and museum studies and the associate dean of research in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Victoria. “Fremantle Prison became a heritage listed site primarily for its convict history associations,” she says. Witcomb’s passion for heritage and history shines through as she deconstructs the meaning of heritage listing and explains how the decision was made to add Fremantle Prison to the list.

“It is World Heritage, but that World Heritage is entirely premised on its convict associations and its wider connection to the serial listing of [convict built] sites around Australia, that together have World Heritage. The moment that happens, the Commonwealth has a responsibility to ensure the conservation of the values of the place that underpin that World Heritage listing. The Commonwealth has a responsibility to ensure that the convict aspect of that site is conserved, but it doesn’t have a responsibility for the rest,” she says.

The Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan seeks to uncover and share the stories of Indigenous Australians who were imprisoned at Fremantle Prison. It will fund roughly two years of research into the cultural value of the prison, specifically in regard to the history of displacement and incarceration of Aboriginal people.

Dr Quigley says despite the prison’s location on Whadjuk Country, people from different nations were imprisoned there throughout its operational history.

“The site is also a symbol of the British Empire, so it exposes the impact of colonisation in visual form and also the representation of Aboriginal people in prisons,” she says.

Quigley says there are many opportunities to investigate stories from families of former Aboriginal prisoners in the Walyalup (Fremantle) area. She says it will need careful planning to execute culturally sensitive discussions about traumatic experiences.

The scope of the Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan is currently being negotiated in monthly meetings between Quigley, the Walyalup Elders and the City of Fremantle.

“We’re doing a bit of pre-work, which is great because we have been able to collaborate and talk to the Walyalup Elders which will inform the Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan, so it can be led by Aboriginal voices rather than non-Aboriginal voices,” says Quigley.

Although the money from the grants has only recently been awarded, she says they began planning this research in November last year, because: “The research was something we knew we had to do.

“One of the things that has come up through talking to the Walyalup Elders is that the research is going to be important for Aboriginal people. There are three things that they would like to see which is to heal, to honour and to educate. I think that the education part really speaks to non-Aboriginal people, people who might not be aware of systematic racism or certain barriers that Aboriginal people have in different aspects of their life, both of which might be why there’s a higher representation of Aboriginal people in prison.”

“The very architecture of the place encouraged romantic associations with the distant past, associations which were encouraged by its convict history,” says Andrea Witcomb. Photo: Olivia Declerck.

A site can be heritage listed at state, country and/or world level. Witcomb says there are many different aspects which are looked into to determine whether a place is eligible for heritage listing, particularly to be recognised at world level in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage List.

Witcomb researched and wrote the segment about Fremantle Prison’s heritage published in UNESCO’s World Heritage Paper 31: Community development through World Heritage in 2012. She wrote that Fremantle Prison is unique due to its continuity of use up until 1991 and the fact that the site remains almost exactly as it was when it closed. It offers a depiction of everyday life of inmates with objects, signs and graffiti still left in the cells from the past 150 years.

“Many of the ephemera and the artworks painted on the walls were done by Aboriginal inmates, capturing their experiences of being a part of the prison population when it was still functioning,” Witcomb wrote.

Most historic prisons were washed-down and painted as a part of the cleaning up process when they were to be reopened as a heritage listed building, but Fremantle Prison wasn’t, which is incredibly valuable in many ways. The items left behind illustrate the prison’s continued connection to the times of colonisation and Witcomb recognised that this is not only presented through its white 19th century history, but also through its black 20th century history.

Witcomb says she believes the Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan is critical in accurately presenting history.

“Fremantle Prison is a very important site with Aboriginal deaths in custody and the enormous rates of imprisonment in WA in particular,” she says.

Quigley says the project will result in truth-telling and raising awareness.

“The reason the Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan will cost the amount that it will is because we hope to do state-wide consultation and go beyond Whadjuk Country to talk to the different people, families and communities all over Western Australia that would’ve had people come down off Country and be held at Fremantle Prison.”

Quigley explains that she is currently writing an Interpretation Management Plan, extracting and compiling all of the values of the prison. “There’s a huge part of it which is the impact of colonisation and the changing of this place from the Swan River Colony to Western Australia. Even though the site’s been listed for some convict aspects, I believe that can be separated from the Aboriginal experience.

“That’s all going to come out in this research. The huge thing is, if colonisation hadn’t have happened, would there be such a large representation of Aboriginal people in prison right now? Would there be a deaths in custody memorial? Everything was so intertwined and if you just look at the convict experience, you’re missing all those other aspects.”

In the past 30 years, 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have died in custody, five of those people died between early March and mid-April of this year. The Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan may assist in shedding light upon this issue in Western Australia, as Quigley and the other people involved in the management plan reach out to the families of former Indigenous Australian inmates at Fremantle Prison. This may also facilitate deeper understanding into inter-generational trauma.

“The other thing the convicts did when they came over was build bridges and all these other structures that the Swan River Colony felt were needed. They actually changed the physical landscape,” Quigley says. This introduces another area in much need of further research by the Fremantle Prison, as Indigenous Australian culture understands an unbreakable bond between land and culture.

Quigley says the narrative construction of convicts and the things they built is a large element in the history of Aboriginal people. She explains that the scoping document for the Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan, on completion, will be a package of tasks that will need to be put into action.

“When we have the scope written, we can say ‘Okay, we need a consultant to come in and do this’ and the consultant will definitely be an Aboriginal person. We haven’t got to the point yet where we will decide how they will be selected because we’re part of the government, meaning we have to go through certain processes. I’m hoping to get one of the Walyalup Elders on the selection panel. It will definitely be an Indigenous consultant.”

The Director of Kambarang Services, Danny Ford, will be the cultural facilitator for the scoping document, which is expected to be complete by July.

Quigley says the working group is trying to find a name in language, instead of continuing to call the research project the ‘Fremantle Prison Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan’.

“It will be a name that looks at recognising the pain of the past and the trauma and maybe bring healing into it,” she says.

“There are two documents which guide the work conducted at Fremantle Prison. Due to the prison being state, national and World Heritage listed, the Heritage Management Plan was created to align with the legislation that must be adhered to. The second document, the Master Plan, is a big vision of what the prison will be achieving over the next ten years. One of the objectives in this plan is to get more stories about the Aboriginal experiences.”