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May - Rottnest Island

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Rottnest Island from the Air Image courtesy Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

Rottnest Island is the fifth Western Australian Heritage Icon. Rottnest Island is located approximately 32 kilometres west of Perth and 19 kilometres west of Fremantle. The island is 11 kilometres long, 4.5 kilometres at its widest point and has an area on 1900 hectares. The island is an 'A" Class Reserve and can only be reached by air or by sea. It is visited by more than 500 000 people a year.

The history of Rottnest Island has provided it with a rich and significant cultural heritage. First records of human occupation of Rottnest Island are from more than 6,500 years ago when the Island was still attached to the mainland, and Aboriginal people inhabited the area. Since its initial European exploration from the 17th Century and its settlement in 1829, Rottnest Island has been through a number of stages of development and has been used for a variety of purposes.


  • Pre 6500 years ago Aboriginal occupation
  • 1658 - 1829 European exploration
  • 1829 - 1838 European settlement, pastoral, fishing and salt gathering
  • 1838 - 1844 Aboriginal prison, farming, pastoral and salt gathering
  • 1844 - 1849 Aboriginal prison, pilot service, farming, pastoral, salt gathering
  • 1849 - 1855 Pilot service and lease, farming, pastoral and salt gathering
  • 1855 - 1903 Aboriginal prison, Governors' Residence and Boys' Reformatory, pilot service and lease, farming, pastoral and salt gathering
  • 1903 - 1936 Recreational use, internment
  • 1917 Rottnest Island was declared an A-Class Reserve under the Permanent Reserve Act 1899 and the Rottnest Board of Control was formed
  • 1936 - 1985 Recreational use and military training
  • 1985 onward Recreational use

Aboriginal Occupation

Artefacts have been found at a number of sites on Rottnest Island pre-dating 6,500 years ago and are possibly tens of thousands of years old, indicating previous Aboriginal occupation of this area prior to the separation of the Island from the mainland. Since the most recent rise in sea levels from 10,000 to 6,500 years ago, the Island has been separated from the mainland. The local Aboriginal people were not sea faring and did not have vessels capable of making the crossing from the mainland and therefore did not traditionally inhabit the Island following the rise in sea level.

Known to local Aboriginal people as Wadjemup, the Island is believed to be a place of spirits and is of significance to Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal Men on Rottnest Image courtesy Battye Library and Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

Early Exploration

The earliest discovery of Rottnest Island by Europeans is credited to Dutch navigators during the 17th century in their search for a shorter route from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia. The first Europeans to actually land on the Island are believed to have been Samuel Volkerson and his crew of the Dutch ship Waeckende Boey while searching for survivors of another Dutch ship the Vergulde Draek in 1658. William de Vlamingh, who in 1696 was the next recorded European visitor to Rottnest Island, gave the Island its name after the abundance of quokkas he saw, mistaking them for rats. Rottnest Island's waters contain more than thirteen shipwrecks - a legacy of the uncharted navigational voyages that occurred during the early exploration of the southwest coast of Australia.


Early Settlement

The first Europeans took up residence on Rottnest Island shortly after the first settlement of the Swan River Colony was established in 1829. Rottnest Island was considered to be of interest as a place with potential for salt harvesting, farming and fishing.

Thomson Bay was named after Robert Thomson, who became a major landholder on Rottnest Island during the 1830s.

Harvesting Salt at Rottnest Island Image courtesy Battye Library and Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

Aboriginal Penal Settlement

For almost a century the Island served as a prison for Aboriginal people (except for a short period of closure between 1849 and 1855) during which some 3,700 Aboriginal men and boys, from many parts of the State, were imprisoned. Closure of the Aboriginal prison was recommended in 1902 and it was officially closed in 1904 although prisoners were used to build roads and other works on the Island until 1931.


Governor's Residence

In 1848 Governor Fitzgerald expressed an interest in residing on Rottnest Island so it became an exclusive summer retreat for successive Governors and their friends. The 1912/1913 summer was the last time the Governor used the Governor's House on Rottnest Island as a summer residence. It was later converted to flats and used by holidaymakers. Today, it is part of the Rottnest Island Hotel.

Governor's Residence on Rottnest Island Image courtesy Battye Library and Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

Boy's Reformatory

In 1881 the Western Australian Government decided that the Island would be a suitable location to reform young boys who had come into conflict with the law. The Rottnest Island Boys' Reformatory was opened in 1881, and operated for 20 years. The Reformatory closed in 1901. Since 1909 the Reformatory buildings have been used as holiday accommodation, operated as part of the Lodge.

Pilot Service and Lighthouses

The operation of the pilot station is another major element of the maritime history of Rottnest Island. The Rottnest Island Pilot Station operated between 1848 and 1903. Pilots were experienced sailors whose job was to guide ships around dangerous reefs and into Fremantle harbour mainly to deliver supplies to the Swan River Colony.


Lighthouses played a key role in the pilot boat operations by providing a communication link between the pilot boat station and incoming ships. The Island's first lighthouse was completed in 1851 and was constructed by Aboriginal prisoners, under the supervision of the Prison Superintendent. Half a century later it was replaced with a new, taller lighthouse on Wadjemup Hill; and a third was built in 1900 at Bathurst Point after the loss of 11 lives when the ship, the City of York, was wrecked in 1899. The Bathurst Point and Wadjemup Hill lighthouses remain today.

Military Role

Rottnest Island has played a military role in both World War I and World War II and has also had post-war training functions.

World War I

With the start of World War I the Department of Defence commandeered the Island for use as an internment and Prisoner of War camp from 1914 to the end of 1915. In September 1915, the camp held 989 persons, including 841 Austrian and German internees and 148 Prisoners of War. Recreational and holiday pursuits were re-established in December 1915.

World War II

In June 1940 the Island was declared a prohibited area and all recreational activity ended. The declaration was intended to last for three months, but continued for five years until June 1945. During the war period, administrative fire command staff and a coastal artillery gunnery school occupied Rottnest Island. The guns were manned 24 hours a day.

In the mid-1940s, the focus of threat moved to Northern Australia, so the fixed defences at the Rottnest Island Fortress were reduced. The 9.2-inch guns were put on a maintenance basis and only the 6-inch gun at Bickley remained manned. The period of intensive military activity on Rottnest Island ended with the guns never being fired at the enemy.

Family enjoying Rottnest experience Image Courtesy Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

Recreational Island

Rottnest Island is a special place for Western Australians and a popular destination for interstate and international visitors. The semi-arid Mediterranean-style climate and indigenous flora and fauna of this Island, an A Class reserve, provide the backdrop to a special holiday experience.

Some of the world's finest beaches and bays can be found at Rottnest Island, providing a spectacular venue for snorkelling, scuba diving, surfing and swimming. Colonial streetscapes and architecture among the oldest in Australia is also a feature of this historic Island.

From 1902 when ferries carried excursionists to Rottnest Island on Sundays to the hordes of visitors arriving today, the island has been a favourite destination for locals and visitors alike. Recreational and holiday pursuits have continued on Rottnest Island from this time to the present day except for its closure in 1914 and again from 1940 to 1945 for military functions.


The Environment

Since Rottnest was separated from the mainland, the flora and fauna on the Island have been isolated, and have experienced changes in environmental conditions.

Quokka on Rottnest Image Courtesy Rottnest Island Authority, Click for a larger view

The quokka is possibly the most well known creature on Rottnest Island. It was first observed by a European in 1658 when the Dutchman, Volkersen, wrote that it resembled an Asian civet cat, but with brown hair. In 1696 de Vlamingh described the quokka as "a kind of rat as big as a common cat". He named the Island "Rotte nest" (meaning "rat's nest") and the name of the Island was eventually adapted to "Rottnest".

Bird life abounds on Rottnest. Coastal birds include the pied cormorant, osprey, pied oystercatcher, silver gulls, crested tern, fairy tern, bridled tern, rock parrot and reef heron. There are many sea birds, including the yellow-nosed albatross, the cape petrel, Wilson's storm petrel, Australian gannet, great skua and wedge-tailed shearwater. The birds of the Melaleuca and Acacia woodlands include the tree martin, welcome swallow, silvereye, spotted turtledove, laughing turtledove, fan-tailed cuckoo, red-capped robin, golden whistler, western warbler, singing honey eater and Australian raven.

Early descriptions of Rottnest Island flora are inconsistent. In 1658 a Dutch sea captain, Samuel Volkersen, described the Island as "well wooded". In 1696, another Dutch sea captain, Willem De Vlamingh, who walked towards the centre of the Island, recorded "bare rocky soils and fine plains". In 1822, a few years before the Swan River colony was first established, James Cunningham, a botanist, described the Island as covered with Rottnest Island Pine trees and Melaleuca. A few years after colonisation, in 1835, Thomas Bradford Wilson, a stockman living on the Island, referred to hummocks and sand hills devoid of vegetation.

European settlers quickly changed the landscape of Rottnest. Land was cleared and tracks made. Firewood was gathered, especially for the salt works, and the Island was repeatedly burned. Aboriginal prisoners often used fires as an aid in hunting quokkas.

The Rottnest Island Marine Reserve has a far greater range of habitats, marine plants and animals than that of the adjacent mainland coastline. Extensive seagrass meadows occur around Rottnest Island, and with nine species, it is second only to Shark Bay in species diversity. Around 360 species of fish and twenty species of coral occur within the Marine Reserve. Fish include the Western Australian jewfish, baldchin groper, harlequin fish, cobbler, flathead, leatherjacket, samson fish, tailor, butterfly fish, moon wrasse, blue devil and migratory fish such as marlin and tuna. The Island is also a popular area for migrating humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and Australian sea lions.

For further information, visit the Rottnest Island Authority's website.


Acknowledgement of Country

The Government of Western Australia acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.