It takes a unique country to name a century-long former internment camp as its favourite holiday destination. Such a country would either have to be one with rather macabre fascinations or a genuine interest in acknowledging historical injustices as a way of moving towards a better future. Or it could just be Australia.
In a poll conducted by travel provider Experience Oz, Rottnest Island took the top spot when it came to favourite Australian holiday destinations. It's not surprising that the natural beauty and unique wildlife were mentioned as to why Rottnest was number one. The hundreds of Aboriginal men buried in unmarked graves probably aren't an island drawcard for most tourists. If tourists indeed know that this what they're walking over when exploring the island.
When Aboriginal people speak of our history in this country these stories are often dismissed. Every Australia Day, this national dismissal of Aboriginal experience is paraded in public for all to see. Aboriginal people are continually accused of focussing only on negatives; of promoting “black armband history” at the cost of celebrating alleged national positives. When it comes to the history of Rottnest though, to try and argue that there are positives to celebrate is impossible.
The proper acknowledgement of the gruesome history of Rottnest has been called for for a very long time. Only two weeks ago, Murdoch academic and Minang-Wadjari man Glen Stasiuk was quoted calling for the closure of Rottnest Lodge Accommodation and asking that it be turned into a museum and appropriate memorial.
Rottnest Lodge claims as part of its lodgings “The Quod” - an octagonal building housing the Aboriginal prison which was in operation from 1838 to 1931. Each luxury hotel room encompasses three of the old cells in which at least seven prisoners were crammed. The Quod grounds where five men were hung on gallows serve as a grassy area for hotel guests to sun themselves and relax. At least ten percent of the prisoners there died; of malnutrition, of illnesses, of brutality. Mr Stasiuk believes nine out of ten people who stay at The Quod don't know this history.
Certainly, Rottnest Lodge doesn't go out of its way to advertise it to potential guests either. The Quod rooms are described as being “rich in history”, which I guess is one way to put it. Additionally the Lodge itself is noted as once being the Summer residence for the Governor of WA, yet the website neglects to state much else about the other buildings.
Much of what else stands in Rottnest today was built of Aboriginal suffering. Michael Sinclair-Jones describes the island buildings and sea retainer walls that were built from Aboriginal prisoner labour, as well as the former campground which sat on top of what is the largest deaths in custody gravesite in this country. At best it seems this is glossed over with local and governmental arguments consistently being it would cost too much to acknowledge these sites. At worst, it is the denial of genocidal practices enacted against Aboriginal people to keep others feeling comfortable when visiting such places.
Gerry Georgatos states that the rate of imprisonment in Western Australia of Aboriginal men today is nine times the rate of imprisonment of black men in apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the horrors of Rottnest are not as deeply buried in the past as most would pretend. Certainly though, it is difficult to think of anywhere else in the world where a horrific internment camp has been swept so easily under the national carpet.
Australians are renowned for their love of travel and holidays. When it comes to Rottnest Island though, this travel comes at the cost of ignoring one of the most horrific examples of displacement, violence and death that Aboriginal people in Western Australia have endured. It is well overdue that Rottnest's history is acknowledged and its victims commemorated. Until then, the best holiday destination in Australia continues to be built upon a lie.