One of Australia’s most historic streetscapes has officially had its street name changed. Vincent Way on Rottnest Island has been renamed to ‘Nyi Nyi Bidi’, removing its commemoration of Henry Vincent, the brutal first superintendent of the island.
This process has been a long time coming for many Indigenous Australians who still feel the impact of Vincent today. Long before the offical name change, the ‘Vincent Way’ street sign was removed when Elisha Jacobs-Smith was a young boy. Then Dr Glen Stasiuk submitted an unsuccessful tender in 2014 to change the name. Now, at last, they are finally seeing progress.
In August 2022, an application to Landgate via the Rottnest Island Authority and the Wadjemup Aboriginal Reference Group was approved. These changes have slowly filtered down to the community, who are still waiting for an official announcement from the RIA.
When Jacobs-Smith was a boy, his mother told him stories about a horrible man named Henry Vincent. His mother, Karen Jacobs, a proud Whadjuk woman, told him Vincent was a twisted man, a cruel man. A man who would beat and hang Aboriginal men and boys. Jacobs-Smith recalled a story his mother told him about Vincent forcing Indigenous men and boys to sleep overnight in the roof of his house when there was no room left in the overcrowded Rottnest Island prison.
These scared men would have to lay ‘dead’ still. Completely silent. Because if they woke Vincent or his family, who lived below, they would be punished. Brutally. This house, filled with all these horrific memories and pain, remains on the island. From the ocean it is to the left of the visitor centre, overlooking Thompson Bay: Cottage F and G. However, after some refurbishments, it is now sought-after holiday accommodation for travellers wanting a beach getaway.
Rottnest Island’s name is often said to derive from the Dutch words “‘t Eylandt ‘t Rottenest”, penned by Dutch Captain Willem de Vlamingh in the late 1690s when he praised the beauty of the island but mistook the now famous quokkas for rats. But another theory, supported by translation from modern Dutch equates rotte with rotten.
Historically ‘Rat’s Nest Island’ is Wadjemup referring to the ‘land across the sea’. This is the name given by its Traditional Owners, the Whadjuk Noongar people. Wadjemup may now be a bustling holiday destination, but for many Indigenous Australians, it is tainted by significant trauma marking the start of mass incarceration of their families.
Wadjemup: The prison
Wadjemup was a prison for Indigenous men and boys from all over Western Australia. The first six Aboriginal men arrived in 1838. The prison remained open for almost 100 years, until 1931. It is estimated around 4000 Indigenous men were incarcerated on the island over that time. The crimes of the men were imprisoned for ranged from murder to killing livestock, stealing flour and acts such as walking on a ‘prohibited’ street as an Indigenous person. The majority were petty by today’s standards.
“It is important to understand the misconception when people refer to these men and boys incarcerated as prisoners,” Jacobs-Smith said. “Many of the crimes they committed were so minor. Many of them were just existing or trying to provide for their families in the frontier wars of colonisation in Western Australia.”
Jacobs-Smith is the cultural immersion facilitator at Curtin University, where he delivers immersive experiences and training for Curtin University staff and other external businesses. These immersive experiences on Wadjemup focus on truth-telling and exploring Indigenous people’s ancient, colonial, and future stories. His mother Karen Jacobs, now retired, was the first and only Indigenous board member of the RIA. His brother Ezra Jacobs-Smith worked as a policy officer on the Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) project, and his grandfather was involved with instrumental truth-telling on the island. For him, the Wadjemup story is personal.
“It would have been torturous.”
Once incarcerated, the conditions these men were subjected to were truly horrific. Tiny, cramped, and claustrophobic cells. Stale air permeated the dank space. There were no windows, no sanitation, no flooring. Upwards of 12 men could be shoved into one cell. Some were even chained inside. When they were allowed out, they were forced into hard, strenuous labour, building infrastructure completely foreign to them.
Dr Stasiuk is a maternal descendant of the Minang-Wadjari Nyungars. He is the academic program chair of screen production, lecture and a senior Indigenous researcher at Murdoch University. He extensively researched Wadjemup for his PhD thesis Wadjemup: Rottnest Island as black prison & white playground and for his films Weewar: A Bindjareb Warrior (2006), Wadjemup: Black Prison – White Playground (2014), and his most recent film Survivors of Wadjemup (2022). Survivors of Wadjemup has been nominated for 12 international awards and was the winner of the Best Short Film at the 2022 Port Shorts Film Festival, Orion International Film Festival, and 2023 Impact DOCS Awards.
“It would get damp, cold and wet. People would get sick and sick pretty quickly. The biggest cause of death on the island during that time period was influenza and other diseases like measles. It would have been a pretty horrible existence,” Dr Stasiuk explained.
The Noongar men incarcerated on the island could look across the 18km of ocean and see fires burning on the mainland. Fires burning from their own families. Fires burning from their brothers, their sisters, their mob. So close but just out of reach. Dr Stasiuk said this would have been ‘torturous.’
State records from the time indicate at least 373 of the Indigenous men imprisoned died on Wadjemup. Most are buried in unmarked graves across the old ‘Tent-land’ and Quod. This makes it the largest instance of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the biggest burial ground of Indigenous people. The exact numbers of incarceration and deaths are unknown. There are gaps in the record-keeping from this time.
Many of these men imprisoned on Rottnest were senior Lore-men. The removal of these powerful men from their country had an irrevocable impact. It led to a breakdown of Aboriginal family structure and kinship, ultimately, the loss of cultural role models. Dr Stasiuk described it as the disenfranchisement of Indigenous people and the complete discombobulation of a family circle or mob. The impacts are still felt today.
The first superintendent
“Henry Vincent was just an awful, awful person. It was said he was so bad his legacy remained there. Even though there were other superintendents after him, they followed Vincent’s standards. The whole location was built by his design,” Jacobs-Smith explained.
Henry Francis Vincent was the first superintendent of the ‘Native Establishment’ on Wadjemup from 1838-1849. He arrived to the Australian colony as a retired soldier in 1830. He had lost one of his eyes fighting in the Battle of Waterloo. With the help of engineers and forced Indigenous labour, Vincent contributed to the many buildings still seen on Rottnest today, such as the Lighthouse, Seawall, Governor’s Quarters (now the hotel), salt stores, museums, and the Quod. Dr Stasiuk said the colonising establishment commended Vincent on the mainland because he was getting work done quickly.
‘Kokerbin-Dwerta’ – The One-Eyed Dog
The men imprisoned on Wadjemup referred to Henry Vincent as ‘Kokerbin-Dwerta’. The Noongar translation of ‘One-Eyed Dog’. Dr Stasiuk said the prisoners feared Vincent, thinking of him as the devil reincarnated. Noongar novelist Richard Wilkes wrote many of the Indigenous men incarcerated thought they had entered the ‘Jenark’s Mia-Mia,’ the home of the Evil Spirit. Vincent’s acts were so appalling word got back to the colony.
“If they ever made it back to their homelands, the stories they told would be absolutely horrendous. All of it was done to break the spirit of a culture that was trying to resist. It was one of Western Australia’s last bastions of resistance,” Dr Stasiuk explained.
Jacobs-Smith said the impact Vincent had on Aboriginal people was profound.
“Today, we look at our people; we look at our families; we see the intergenerational trauma; we see the lack of identity that we struggle with, and we continually attempt to return our strength and our self-determination.
“He was one of the people that took that away from us. I feel that every day.”
Appeals for change
Attempts have been made to acknowledge the past and reconcile with the Indigenous communities impacted by the Rottnest Island Prison and the acts of Vincent. The RIA engaged Dr Stasiuk in 2014 to submit a tender for Vincent Way to be renamed. In this application, the RIA outlined it hoped to begin vilifying rather than glorifying Vincent’s name. However, it was denied by then Premier and Tourism Minister Colin Barnett on the grounds he didn’t support ‘rewriting history.’
Dr Stasiuk said the pushes for change were arising from individuals’ goodwill rather than systemic changes.
“That’s the problem. We need it to be embedded and systemically happening, happening to a timeline. That’s reconciliation to me.” he said.
Nyi Nyi Bidi
The name of Vincent Way has now been officially changed to Nyi Nyi Bidi: the Noongar words for the Crying Road. A spokesperson for the Rottnest Island Authority said members of the Wadjemup Aboriginal Reference Group asked for the name plaque for Henry Vincent on the Wadjemup Lighthouse to remain for truth-telling. No formal announcement has been made about the renaming to Nyi Nyi Bidi however, the new name appears on the national map and tourist maps on the island. So far there has been no mention of renaming Vincent Lake.
Despite Jacobs-Smith’s ongoing engagement with Wadjemup, at the time this article was written his family had not been informed of the change. A massive step forward in reconciliation like this should be a milestone moment and used to raise awareness of the island’s dark history, but many people holiday on Rottnest Island do not know it was a prison. Many people stay in Vincent’s cottage but do not know he held Indigenous men and boys in the roof.
“One of the most disturbing things is when I actually take people there, and they realise, ‘oh, it has been hidden from me.’ Regardless of your background, you realise now you’re a victim in the story too, because it’s been intentionally done,” Jacobs-Smith said.
Steps such as changing the name and the Wadjemup project are important in breaking this disconnect. Jacobs-Smith said he hopes an official announcement is made soon, and the name change paves the way for other changes on the Island, like renaming Vincent Lake.
Steps toward reconciliation
The Wadjemup Project is a State Government funded ongoing reconciliation plan offering strategies for truth-telling, ceremony, and commemoration through acknowledging the dark history and impact of Indigenous incarceration on Rottnest Island. The process is said to be Aboriginal-led with Whadjuk Noongar Elders and Elders from Aboriginal communities across WA, but it is a slow-moving process with layers of bureaucracy.
“I always say while this information is only coming to light now, we’ve always remembered. As Aboriginal people we’ve always told stories. We feel the trauma. It won’t be forgotten. The fact Rottnest Island visitors are now becoming aware is a really good thing,” Jacobs-Smith said.
Dr Stasiuk feels there is a need for an Interpretive Centre to facilitate the healing process and upgrade the ‘underwhelming burial site.’ He suggested the Interpretive Centre should encapsulate the journey of healing through the Quod, morgue, and out to the burial site.
“There could be a journey for people to take and to reflect on. It should be something that’s not just based on Wadjemup but colonisation as a whole. It could be a place of real hard, reflective healing and reconciliation for Australia,” he suggested.
“We can show that dark history, expose the truth, tell it, and then try to find solutions to how we can all move on together. It is another part of Australia’s history, particularly Western Australia’s, and affects almost every person. Black, white, or brindle.”
This article is part of a larger project called Where What Why. You can find the whole collection of stories about places and their names here.