Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University

Curators and The Colony: Managing the Past at Rottnest Island Museum

Stephen Mickler

In his paper "Museums and 'The People'", Tony Bennett notes that:

Museums were regarded, by the end of the century [19th], as major vehicles for the fulfilment of the state's new educative and moral role in relation to the population as a whole. [1]

He also points out that prior to the 1930s museums in Australia had a distinct lack of collections and exhibits relating to the post-settlement period. This, he finds, was a:

..symptom of a deeper cultural problem: the perception, owing to the predominance of Eurocentric conceptions, that Australia, a fledgling among nations of the world, had no history that was worthy of preservation, display and commemoration. [2]

From the late 1960s there was an unprecedented flurry of legislative changes to Australian museum and heritage policy. This was fuelled by a resurgent nationalism in the 1970s (a presumed completion of the capitalist class's economic and cultural independence from Britain) which generated intense and diverse activity with regard to preserving, researching, displaying and promoting the settlement and post-settlement period.

However, while white Australia nationalized the past, a process that was welcomed and supported across the political spectrum, the indigenous colonized people began to develop a powerful voice to challenge not only imperial history, but also this more recent home-grown revision.

The object of this study is to examine the part played by museums in the construction of this national past. It will be argued that, as institutions of cultural production, museums are important sites of the manufacture of a sentimental "countryside of the mind".3

While Bennett uses this concept to describe the bourgeois vision of a past bereft of class conflict that is the product of the English folk museum, it can be usefully appropriated to describe the way museums paint a colonial landscape in which the expropriation, repression and murder of Aborigines is either closed out or negotiated and contained.

The museum at Rottnest Island, the object of this case study, presents the latter more complex problem, where the total exclusion of the Aboriginal holocaust is no longer feasible, and curatorial practices tend to take on the task of crisis management.

"An Interpretive Plan"

Well before they enter the rectangular limestone building, visitors to the Rottnest museum already know something about the history of the Island. On the ferry, just prior to docking at Thompson Bay jetty, holiday- makers are treated to a potted history delivered by a smooth pre-recorded voice, the kind of patter associated with drive-time FM. They are informed that the Dutch were the first Westerners to sight the island in the early 17th century, that it is one of the most beautiful in the Indian Ocean, and that it has many enjoyable natural features and leisure activities to offer. Fun seekers are also told, almost as if in passing, that the Island formerly served as a "prison for convicts".

Having decided to learn a bit more about the Island, visitors pay a dollar at the door of this solid structure, built as a salt-house by Henry Vincent, the gaoler and island master, in 1844.

The building was restored in 1979 under the guidance of the National Trust. The displays were developed with funding from the Australian Heritage Commission which, a leaflet informs, "has shown great interest in the proposal".

The museum has its own central narrative structure, one which guides the visitor not only from one display to the next but through a peculiar order of historicised time.

A blue strip running along the floor, rather like a giant version of those intersecting lines which connect the points of a flow chart or boxes of a structural diagram, and indeed operating on the same principle, beckons the visitor to conduct his or her reading of exhibits in the pre-established order.

With a discursive authority derived from the charting conventions established and refined in encyclopedia, naturalist journals and even tax forms, this 'history walk' starts out, reassuringly, from the 'dawn of time', leading the visitor through a succession of exhibits, each representing a significant stage of first the Island's natural history and then social history.

The leaflet tells us that Rottnest authorities "felt for some time the need for a wider and more comprehensive interpretation of the geology, history, flora and fauna of the island", an "interpretive plan".

The stages of this history, while in general organized as a temporal linearity, are more importantly distinguished collectively as a series of scientific disciplines - geology, climatology, biology, archaeology.

Commenting on the historical development of this practice, Bennett provides some useful insights as to its ideological effect.

So far as their implications for museums were concerned, their main significance was that of allowing for organic life to be conceived and represented as a temporally ordered succession of different forms of life where the transitions between them were accounted for not as a result of external shocks (as had been the case in the eighteenth century) but as the consequence of an inner momentum inscribed within the concept of life itself. [4]

It is that sense of 'inner momentum', which has become, since the rise of Darwinian evolutionary theory, a scientific dominant, that is powerfully employed to naturalize a given representation of the order of things past. The significance for the reader travelling the Rottnest museum history trail is that the separate exhibits present themselves as stages of a naturally progressing historic continuum, as scenic look-outs onto a grander view of an unfolding fulfilment of destiny. Any resistances to the transition from the 'ecological history' of the Island to the social exhibit series quietly succumb to this evolutionary momentum. It is as though the Island itself is driven by some internal idea.

The visitor is by now positioned for a reading that the European colonization of the Island was as natural an occurrence as the geological formation of the Island itself some 7000 years before.

The exhibit of the prison period, comprising photo-text panels, prison paraphernalia such as chains and scraps of uniform, and a scaled down model of a typical cell is positioned as another stop along the blue floor strip, in other words, a self-contained, compartmentalized and therefore, as we shall see, a strictly controlled perspective. However, to its credit, it is the most visually striking and textually powerful exhibit. Moreover, this is one of the only museums in Western Australia to depict in any way the brutal repression of Aborigines by the colonial state. The dispossession and genocide of the Aborigines is, as a rule, something which is studiously avoided in Western Australian museums. For instance the WA Museum in Perth contained, at the time of writing, only a small photographic display on Aborigines in the settlement period while the museum at the Anthropology Department of the University of Western Australia also preferred to represent the indigenous people largely in terms of numerous glass-encased art works, implements and similar aboriginalia.

A consequence of such structured absences within established Australian museological discourse can be observed in visitors to the Rottnest museum, who are visibly impressed by the power and novelty of the prison exhibit - disturbed by the uncustomary presence of colonial oppression.

However, as singular as this exhibit might be, we should recall that the elementary function of any museum is to construct a reading of the past that in the final analysis naturalizes and legitimates the origins of a particular economic and social order. Bennett, in his paper "The Exhibitionary Complex" traced the evolution of the modern museum and identifies its main representational function as:

construction of a temporally organized order of things... and an order which organized the implied public - the white citizenries of the imperialist powers - into a unity, representationally effacing divisions within the body politic in constructing a 'we' conceived as the realization, and therefore just beneficiaries of the processes of evolution and identified as a unity in opposition to the primitive otherness of conquered peoples. [5]

Although various discursive and spatial strategies are deployed to achieve this end at the Rottnest Museum, we can see a very hostile, rival discourse which directly challenges the moral superiority of the British colonial imperative in Western Australia.

Facing the prison display, across the room, are three displays dedicated to the early colonists of the Island. Care has been taken to ensure a clear distancing between these two otherwise deeply interrelated themes. Only a very close reading of the text panels and a fair capacity for deductive reasoning (not to mention a suspicious mind) on the part of the visitor will reveal that the prison was in fact the main function and centre of activity on the Island from 1839 to 1903. (This is acknowledged in the Rottnest Island Authority's endorsed history booklet Rottnest: Links In History.6

Thus the positioning of the displays is in the first instance powerfully representational, demonstrating that, at the layout phase, curatorial planning has been guided by a cunning politics of space. The basic effect is a separating out of the scandalous phenomenon of the prison from the story of the settler/warder caste who serviced it, in order that the latter can be positively reconstructed to populate a generic landscape of sturdy, righteous and resourceful pioneers. At the same time, the prison display, smouldering with deconstructive potential, is more or less contained, like fissionable material, in a separate space, and in a sense, a separate time.

The "curatorial vision"7 here incorporates a careful weighing up of the contradictory interplay between the subversive message of the repressed other and the dominant colonial narrative of discovery, settlement and Western progress. I propose to examine this in more detail.

A display entitled "Memorabilia - Early Settlers on the Island" consists of photographs of settler families, text, maps and household articles. These last are an assortment of fairly mundane items, an old brass barometer, binoculars, a straw hat, a silver spoon, a wooden jewellery box and so on. What is interesting is that these things mean very little in themselves. Rather, they convey a sense of pastness by their very decrepitude. They signify 'past', metaphorically standing for a whole imagery of pioneering, of wholesome familiness, self-discipline, faith and frugality. A stock of generic conventions about sturdy forebears is drawn upon. There is a treasured pre-plastic appearance that infers a harmonic existence of simple wants before the age of mass consumerism. The written text concerns individuals such as Robert Thomson the farmer, Constable Welch the policeman and Samuel Duffield the lighthouse keeper, people with clearly defined social roles and large respectful families.

A complete display is devoted to Henry Vincent, the Prison Superintendent from 1839 to 1867. Vincent, Links in History tells us, was wounded and lost an eye in the Battle of Waterloo. He was the Gaoler at Fremantle from 1831 until given the job of constructing the "Rottnest Native Establishment" eight years later.8

The display panels present the figure of Henry Vincent as "a man of incongruent qualities... a good practical man ... farmer, architect and superintendent".

During his 21 years as Superintendent of Rottnest Island Vincent managed, with the aid of his Aboriginal prisoners, to both farm successfully and to build many durable buildings. These make up the Settlement of Thompson Bay and their distinctive charm play an important part in forming the character of Rottnest today.

We begin to learn how central a figure Vincent is to the lore of the Island, to whom it owes its very popularity. Several photo-text panels and models of buildings celebrate in detail Vincent's skills, resourcefulness and hard work. A very persuasive picture of an heroic pioneer is taking shape.

By this means, the man, whom the history booklet also tells us was an extremely cruel and brutal gaoler9, is recuperated sufficiently to take his necessary place in the economy of this colonial narrative as the builder/founder of the settlement. The text employs a number of discursive devices in an attempt to ameliorate the contradiction between the positive pioneering image it is compelled to create and the real dark underside of colonial expansion - incarceration, terror and death for indigenous people.

Firstly, it is necessary to recontextualise Vincent as a 'man of his times', to flatter the reader with a presumed understanding of certain underlying moral and social relativities within historical periods. This operation is begun in the Vincent display...

He lived in an era of harsh times, ruling with an iron hand, yet he showed leniency to sick prisoners....

and completed across the room within the prison display...

By today's standards, the conditions the prisoners suffered were most inhumane. It must be remembered that the general conditions in the colony were not good. The period was also one where harsh and brutal methods were standard fare for enforcing discipline.

The phrase "harsh times" is connotative of a transcendental reality, a supremacy of environment over politics, a space wherein the suspension of normal moral judgement, human rights and codes of behaviour is fully justified. However, the attempt here to provide an historical explanation for institutional brutality is, perhaps, subverted by other assertions in the text, for instance, that the setting up of the Rottnest Prison was to enable a more humane confinement for Aborigines "with more freedom to move".

The political strategy advanced by these historicist presuppositions is also effected in the delimiting of what "must be remembered". Why are we not also appealed to remember other eminently relevant, historically documented characteristics of "the period", for instance, that Aborigines all over the continent were dying, through massacre and introduced diseases, were being dispossessed of their land, imprisoned and enslaved into domestic and farm labour? Undoubtedly, to recontextualise Vincent against a background of strategic and systemic colonial violence and repression would seriously undermine the entire nostalgic "countryside of the mind" constructed through the curatorial vision of this museum.

What the display does not tells us, but which the history booklet does, is that Vincent's overtly brutal treatment of the prisoners concerned even the colonial authorities to the extent that the Governor was constrained to station an investigator on the Island (who was subsequently driven off it by Vincent).10

Why gaol Aborigines at Rottnest Island? A natural question from the inquisitive visitor. The display continues:

Not used to physical confinement they found the (Fremantle) prison unbearable. A proposal to use Rottnest Island as a native prison seemed to provide both security and a degree of freedom.

And a photo caption reads.."Aboriginal prisoners were allowed a free day on Sunday to hunt."

The above statements themselves of course are particularly direct means by which the text attempts to win the reader over to an alleged humanitarian purpose of the prison. Firstly we are asked to believe that some innate claustrophobia of the Aborigines made their gaoling a more difficult task although anyone visiting the Fremantle Roundhouse Prison today could be forgiven for experiencing a similar fear and loathing for the small dark cells. Secondly, it is not difficult figure out that the Roundhouse would have been far too small to hold the increasing numbers of prisoners arriving from the frontier.11 Thirdly, any chance that a Roundhouse inmate had of communicating with his people on the outside was completely dashed after transferral to Rottnest Island.

We also learn that the Sunday "free day" did not in fact exist during Vincent's reign, rather it was instituted under a succeeding superintendent, Jackson.

Jackson was rather more humane than Vincent. On Sunday the prisoners were given a free day. They could roam the island from 9.00 am to 4.00 pm. No food was provided so they had to fend for themselves catching 'wallabies, birds and fish' to eat for their evening meal.

This is corroborated by W. Somerville in his book Rottnest Island, In History and Legend.12

Was the "more humane" Jackson, like Vincent, also a product of his times, if so, how can Vincent's cruelty and Jackson's relative humanitarianism be reconciled with the claim that the harsh treatment reflected hard times?

This last tract also demonstrates that the predominant racial paternalistic subjectivity of the period can be mobilized today in almost identical form. The reader is told that on Sundays the prisoners were virtually forced to resort to their customary hunter-gatherer mode of food procurement by their gaoler (which incidentally, probably saved a day's food bill). The Aborigines, whose traditional way of life was completely curtailed by their imprisonment by colonial authorities, are then presented as having to be coerced into using their hunting skills for a day each week. So quickly does the native come to rely on state handouts! How ironically telling it is about the transcendental superiority of the British colonizer that the lazy black man, for his own good, has to be compelled to subsist by his own cultural technique.

It seems that any pretext, no matter how slight, is grasped in order to recuperate the image of Vincent, the founding forefather, from what is becoming, through the prison display, a subversive image of a tyrant. The thoughtful construction of a persona embodying contradictory traits - "a man of incongruent qualities" - is a rhetorical device which asks the reader to weigh up his 'good and bad points' in order to read him as the same kind of delightful rogue or colourful scoundrel, that is, heroic male individual, that is central to Australian colonial mythology.

How did these leniently treated prisoners become sick in the first place? Back at the prison display the abominable conditions of Vincent's gaol are vividly described...

They were chained together by the neck and many were sick during the crossing. On arrival the prisoners were issued with one blanket and one set of clothes. They had to make do with this issue for their stay on the island. The cold Rottnest winters had to be endured with this one issue of clothing. For Aborigines from the north this must have been unbearable.

Nights were spent on the timber floor in terribly cramped and filthy conditions. Up to 10 prisoners, at times, were crowded into cells measuring 10 feet x 5 feet 6 inches (3m x 1.7m). There was no sewerage system. The cells were slushed with a bucket of water each morning. The smell was incredible. The prisoners were kept in these conditions during their sentence which varied from a few months to life.

We recognize these conditions. We have heard of them before, from survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. The paradigm is apparent.

Vincent's background and experience as a gaoler with the general belief that the aborigines were an inferior race meant that the aboriginal prisoners were treated terribly.

The diet was inadequate, there was no variation and the preparation of the food was very different from the techniques used by the aborigines. The prisoners received no vegetables or fruit. The superintendent's garden had vegetables for his own use and any excess went to feed the horses not the prisoners.

Epidemics swept through the cells, flu, measles, killing dozens at a time adding to the toll of drownings, hangings and murders.13

The prison display does attempt to give the prisoners a speaking voice by including excerpts from testimonial statements given to the Commission of Inquiry into the Treatment of Aboriginal Prisoners at Rottnest in 1884. The vexing problem with literal transcriptions of this kind is that the simple English, dotted with pidjin, inevitably connotes a childishness . We are culturally trained to expect people who use phrases like "coax'em me" to end up in prison - or at least to be victims of some sort or another. The mere hint of pidjin, against all good will on the part of the reader, is sufficient to mobilize a reading that is Eurocentric and paternalist. Nevertheless, the voice of the other, as refracted here, reifies the scandal and horror.

Finally, a fundamental ideological closure operates at the level of the contextualization of the prison within the colonial narrative reproduced by the museum. The entire economy of the prison and the settler displays is foregrounded by the assumption that the prison existed within the recognized bounds of a legitimate punitive role allocated to prisons. In other words, the designations of 'prisoner', 'convict' and even 'prison' depoliticize an essentially political object. Placed within the discursive framework of crime and punishment the Aborigines and their captors become two halves of a carceral function. The scandal of the barbaric treatment of the Aborigines, although embarrassing and a threat to the mythic moral superiority of the colonizer, can be managed relatively safely as an aberration of the system, to be rectified by Commissions of Inquiry and so forth, rather than be read as evidence of structural terror and repression.

However the prison display text also constitutes a site of struggle between two oppositional readings, the older preferred reading that the gaoling of Aborigines, not withstanding their subsequent treatment, was the proper effect of Law, and a powerfully resistant one which seeks to decentre the colonialist subject position.

The way in which this struggle is managed can be seen in the following excerpt:

Problems between white settlers and aborigines were evident from the beginnings of the Swan River Colony. Many aborigines were apprehended for infringements of imposed British laws. Naturally aborigines had difficulty understanding these laws and the reasons for imprisonment.

Thus the apocalyptic scale of colonial conflict is reduced to 'problems between settlers and aborigines', a common theme which I will shortly explore further together with the inference that these 'problems' were somehow not foreseen. The wholesale driving off of Aborigines from land they occupied is transformed into a question of the understandable Aboriginal ignorance of British law, albeit imposed. Here we see a paternalistic reading mobilized through stereotypic representations of hapless natives, passive victims of their historic obsolescence, self-destructive, defenceless. There is a body of historical research suggesting that the killing of sheep, a common reason for sentencing to Rottnest, was not only a source of food in the face of the depletion of kangaroo numbers by settlers, but a form of resistance.14

Visitors to the Island today should note that the prison, a hostel since 1907, is now undergoing extensive refurbishment as part of Alan Bond's luxury Rottnest Lodge Resort. Known affectionately as the 'Quad', the guest rooms, formerly those abominable cells, all look out onto a pleasant gazebo which occupies the centre ground, where the gallows stood less than a century ago. A new swimming pool will sweep around the gazebo on one side. A bar located at the back of the complex bears the simple and tasteful name - Vincent's, of course.

Thus far it has been shown that the institutional practices of this museum, focused under a curatorial vision, reproduce a colonial "countryside of the mind", peopled by upstanding hard-working pioneers whose arrival on the scene is structured as an evolutionary progression. The scandalous presence of the prison period, and behind it the repressed anti-colonial message of the colonized other, is contained, negotiated, managed, but by no means neutralized and the text is fraught with gaps, contradictions and spaces for resistant representational strategies. However, in the interests of developing more effective counter-strategies with which to extend the boundaries of what is publicly understood about the colonial crimes against Aborigines an examination of a broader museological and historical inter-discourse is required. Before returning to the particular problem of the museum I will attempt to locate it within a wider realm of the manufacture of the past.

A Museum Within A Museum

There is a problem of discursive and institutional demarcation at the Rottnest Island Museum.

Let me argue firstly that the particular pleasure of Rottnest Island is derived from something more than the sum of its leisureful offerings, the beaches, fishing, golf, boating, cycling, seclusion, scenery. Indeed these are to be had, more or less, at any holiday resort.

Rottnest Island also operates as a site of European cultural reaffirmation, through the recuperation of a colonial past. It is not only the texts, the tourist brochures, signposts, the taped history on the ferry boat, that position the visitor to read the colonial meaning of the island but the very process of leaving the mainland and arriving by boat. There is a deeply embedded cultural imagery, a colonial exploration and migration, at its most elementary level, a venturing out from the hub of civilization, a voyage of discovery, but on a higher level, a voyage of rediscovery and rebirth. The physical act of going to the Island is to embark on a journey of return to national and cultural origins.

Drawing close to the Island, Thompson Bay, the main 'settlement', becomes discernible as a low rise collection of rudimentary buildings. Apart from the odd power pole, the lamp posts on the jetty, an innocuous radio mast, and the pleasure boats in the harbour (which seem to stand apart from the settlement, possibly because one thinks of them as visiting rather than resident), the scene is predominantly one of pre-industrial Arcadia.

It is evident that considerable effort has gone into suppressing the signs of post-colonial technology and municipal infrastructure.

While viewing this scene, two or three hundred metres from the jetty, the visitor listens to a pre-taped promotion which informs, generously, that the Island is one of the most beautiful in the Indian Ocean. The island is contextualized as having been discovered and the visitors positioned as rediscoverers.

On shore, experience is rich with rustic signification. The rough edges of the roads, the cracked concrete surrounds and curbs partially buried by drifting beach sand all contribute to conveying a sense of pastness. Whether by design or otherwise, this unfinishedness signifies old. Quite simply, neat bitumen edges, fresh concrete and swept curbs would present a very different aesthetic, and even though these weathered things are in themselves relatively recent additions to the Island their very state of disrepair and unkemptness sharpens the overall historicity of the landscape.

This sense of pastness is highly important to the operation of Rottnest as a pleasure centre. Rottnest Island is not a simulation of the same order as say Pioneer World, on the southern outskirts of Perth. Pioneer World is an obviously contrived colonial townscape from which the visitor derives pleasure in the form of a wonderment at the craft of simulation itself, conscious enjoyment of the minute detail and the technique of replicating the old from new materials while at the same time aware that the replica is faithful only to an expectation, an imagery of coloniality rather than archaeological 'fact'.

Visitors know that Pioneer World never existed, it is in Baudrillardian terms, a simulacrum, a copy for which their is no original other than in culturally consensual images of particular pasts, in this case, small town Australia circa 1860.

Rottnest Island has no horse-drawn carriages, barmaids and blacksmiths in period costume, gold fossickers or bushrangers. The authenticity of the history the Island constructs is dependent upon the visitor's belief that simulation is not occurring here but rather carefully preserved material from the past, comprising buildings, walls, roads and pathways and the relationships between them in the form of an ordered town-plan. The promotional literature about the Island frequently emphasizes its discovery by European seafarers. Signposting and pathways are arranged to draw attention to historic buildings and historico-geographic landmarks. The meticulous restoration of the colonial character of the Island's buildings, the resistance, until only recently, to 'Club Med' style development, even though this would undoubtedly increase the profitability of the Island, suggest that Rottnest also offers a different kind of investment, an ideological one (although that is not to say that leisure resorts are ideologically neutral).

Apart from the official constitution of a particular site as museum, the Island in its entirety operates in many ways akin to a giant open-air folk museum in which the boundary between exhibition and utility is blurred.

The social landscape of Rottnest Island is municipal and civic. Not only is the entire island, an A class reserve, completely administered by a special government authority, but apart from a few low key food outlets and a mini-golf concession there has been until recent controversies minimal signs of private enterprise. For the visitor who chooses to rent a holiday unit at Thompson Bay (at less than market rates) from the Authority there is almost a Fourieresque sense of socialist order from the time one's luggage is delivered (by flat-bed truck by workers who appear themselves to be on holiday) from the jetty to one's door. While some units are newer than others, all are equivalent in terms of comfort, style and quality and prices vary only according to the number of bedrooms. All the units emulate in character the austere and quaint architecture of this former colonial outpost so that a sense of pastness, of cultural nostalgia pervades and forms the backdrop against which the visitor experiences other aspects of the Island.

Apart from police, the Rottnest Island Authority is the most visible organizational force, and, going about its various functions (rubbish collection, public transport, upkeep of facilities etc.), helps create an atmosphere of civic well-being which alongside the scarcity of private corporate activity intensifies the sense of benevolent pre-capitalist order.

A Petit-Bourgeois Retrospective

On the other hand the social landscape of Pioneer World is that of the corner store. Indeed the reading position set up is that of the small business layer of the petit-bourgeoisie. The town is peopled by hard-working self-made small entrepreneurs, the chemist and her shop, the blacksmith and his foundry, the baker, publican and so on, each having a clearly defined and essential economic and social role within this simulated community. The implication is that a time existed when individuals were not plagued by the ambiguities, social ruptures and alienation that resulted from large scale production, where petit-bourgeois shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen in the towns and the equally petit-bourgeois farmers in the country coexisted to mutual advantage. This middle-class utopia is pleasantly devoid of a working-class, capitalists and smoky factories. In fact almost every trace of government and the state has also been effaced. Articles of every day use are hand crafted, not mass produced.

Perhaps the 'real' pioneer town that is the subject of this generic simulation was not likely to have had the equipment of industrial capitalism in any case, but this only further demonstrates, by its choice as a theme, that within advanced capitalist culture the popularized image of the past takes the form of a petit-bourgeois harking back to a pre-imperialist harmony.

I would argue that both of these distinctive imageries of colonial past, the craftsmen and shopkeepers of Pioneer World and the backwater administrators of Thompson Bay construct a comforting middle-class vista of the origins of private property and the state, before the rupture and alienation caused by industrial capitalism. It seems to make some sense that the middle class, the administrators of the capitalist economy and state, the manufacturers and distributors of bourgeois ideology, should not only provide the dominant subject position from which the preferred reading of the world is made, but would also wish to soothe its chronic insecurities with a vision of origins with itself at the centre.

Baudrillard, in his discussion of simulacra and the hyperreal, observes that the city of Los Angeles is encircled by Disneyland-like fantasy worlds, or "imaginary stations". These "simulations of a third order" operate to make us believe that the rest of the city, and America - the "hyperreal" - are real.15

Interestingly, the city of Perth is similarly surrounded, not only by family fun-park simulations like Adventure World, Underwater World and Atlantis Marine Park, but also by the simulacra of the past, Rottnest Island, Pioneer World (which also belongs with the former) and of course the 'historic towns' of York and Toodyay whose chief function is the production of pastness for the education and pleasure of suburbanites Perhaps these open air museums anchor the popular narratives of colonial times in solid material, the limestone walls and showcased memorabilia attesting that the history of TV, film and school texts really happened. Closer to the city, the wholesale 'restoration' of Fremantle from the mid-1980s demonstrates the scale and openendedness of the post-modern drive to reproduce and recuperate the surfaces of the past in urban lifestyle.

Why is it important to the representation of colonial relations between settlers and Aborigines that the imagery of the past be interchangeable ones of rugged petit-bourgeois individualism and mild mannered petty officialdom, that those times be depicted as a halcyon period of small craftsmen, farmers, clerks and shopkeepers?

With few exceptions representations of the physical conquest of Aboriginal people and their lands are framed as sporadic 'encounters' with the 'natives', usually concerning the theft or spearing of livestock. In this way, as has been discussed earlier in the context of the Rottnest museum, the full political meaning of the colonizing project can be transformed into a matter of localized and individualized struggle over private property. This theme is also expressed as a 'clash' between two cultures, some sort of unavoidable historic tragedy out of which the superior technology emerges victor.

What is a stake is the exposure of the fact that the incarceration of Aborigines at Rottnest Island was a crucial component of a conscious state strategy to break Aboriginal resistance and depopulate the land in order to settle it. Its description as a native penal establishment served to locate it within the familiar and meaningful discourse of law, to lend legitimacy to what was in effect a concentration camp where at least 500 Aborigines died and up to 5,000 were interned over a 65 year period.

We must remind ourselves that the British bourgeoisie was at the time the strongest, most technically advanced and experienced in the world, waging wars of colonial expansion with its European rivals all over the globe. It had already over 200 years experience in dealing with indigenous populations.

When reading the official lists of those who died at Rottnest16 one is struck by the geographic patterns of incarceration. We find that in the early days of the prison, the 1840s, the dead came logically enough from the country surrounding the Swan River Colony and then the southwest corner. In the 1860s there is an abrupt introduction of names from the Murchison-Gascoyne region and the Pilbara (1880s) and then a wave of people from the Kimberleys (1890s). In other words the Rottnest Prison death list is a precise parallel chart of the progressive expansion of the colonial frontier. As new areas were opened up for agricultural and pastoral settlement there was a corresponding influx of able-bodied males from those areas into Rottnest Prison. In fact, during a lull in this expansion after the initial settlement of the south-west corner, the prison was actually closed down in 1849, to be reopened in 1855, in anticipation of a fresh intake of black prisoners resulting from the new drive into the Murchison-Gascoyne.

It has not been the purpose of this paper to present a exhaustive history of the use of Rottnest Island as an Aboriginal prison. However, one is obliged when making a case study of this sort, which focuses upon the means by which the past is represented in recent texts, signs and institutions such as the Rottnest Museum, and the pedagogic effect of this, to identify the theoretical basis from which one's own political interpretations of history are made. Basically and very briefly, it is accepted that the British colonization of Australia occurred as part of the world wide expansion of British capitalist interests; the need for increasing amounts of raw materials, the requirement for geo-strategic advantage over her rivals, France in particular, and the creation and domination of overseas markets and trade. Accepted also is the Marxist understanding that such historical processes occurred not only because of superstructural imperatives of powerful nations, but are linked to the economic interests of rising classes and transformations in the nature of commodities and markets, which operate according to laws which are independent of the will of individuals and classes.

It follows from this analysis that from the time the first British settlement was established at King George Sound in 1826 the encounter between Aborigines and Europeans in Western Australia must be characterized as one of an indigenous people's dispossession and domination by a powerful world historic colonizing process within which for us, periodic, local and individual variations are neither here nor there except in as much as they clarify the former. In other words, the impressions and actions of specific colonizers cannot be substituted for the brutal and genocidal strategy authorized by the British ruling class.

The image of the settler-farmer or town constable who shoots an Aborigine for any of a number of reasons, theft of livestock or produce, self-defence or even as a murderous sport is far more preferable to an implication that the cause of the destruction of Aboriginal society is to be found in British policy and colonialism as a whole, with the implication being that an unresolved colonial problem exists in Australia from which the questions of compensation and special national rights inexorably flow.


The issue of Rottnest Island prison is not closed. Over the past two years Aboriginal groups have demanded the Western Australian Government provide money to commemorate those who were held and those who died, and to consult the Aboriginal community over the future of significant areas.17 Recently they have taken action in an effort to protect the prison and hundreds of unmarked graves from desecration by developers and the Rottnest Island Authority. The appropriation of the prison as an education centre, a "chamber of horrors", has been demanded as a means of informing the public about the atrocities that occurred there. A film, In the Name of The Crow (by Marion Benjamin and Robert Bropho, 1988) has already articulated to national TV audiences Aboriginal perspectives on the criminal essence of this early Australian Dachau . It is likely that the curatorial vision of the museum will be challenged by these developments, and be impelled to renegotiate the terms under which the scandalous fact of the prison times is permitted to snipe at the borders of the colonial "countryside of the mind" that is its chief produce. As JanMohamed has theorized in terms of the operation of Manichean allegory, colonial discourse, in its dialectical struggle with the resistant readings and oppositional texts of the colonized 'other' effects seemingly endless transformations of the white-good/black-bad binary opposition, at successively sophisticated and complex levels, in order to maintain the upper hand.18

Thus far, the Australian bourgeoisie has managed to maintain effective control of the sites of production of meaning about the past. Important amongst these are museums, speaking to thousands of school children, workers and professional people each year, legitimating, by their scientific authoritativeness, profoundly neo-colonial conceptions. Museums and other places of historical simulation must not be overlooked as sites at which the struggle to decolonize language can be waged.

An opportunity exists for the Aboriginal movement and its supporters in the Left to cooperate for an intervention into museological discourses about Aborigines in Western Australia, starting at Rottnest Island. This could entail the establishment of an alternative exhibition from which to mount an offensive against curatorial visions of colonial times or demands for a radical transformation of the existing displays, or both. Through whatever appropriate methods, recuperating the full repressed account of this colonial prisoner of war camp is central to the process of decolonizing historical discourses about the State of Western Australia.


For their help in the preparation of this paper I would like to thank Ron Blaber and Garry Gillard.

1 Tony Bennett, "Museums and the People", unpublished paper, Griffith University, 1986, p.1.

2 Bennett, 1986, p. 20.

3 Bennett, 1986, p. 2.

4 Tony Bennett, "The Exhibitionary Complex", New Formations, No. 4, 1988, p. 90.

5 Bennett, 1988, p. 92.

6 James A. Henderson & T. Perigo, Rottnest, Links In History (Rottnest Island Authority, Perth, 1989), pp. 10-15.

7 Bennett, 1986, 24.

8 Henderson et. al., p. 11.

9 Ibid, p. 11.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid, p. 10.

12 W. Somerville, 'Rottnest Island, In History and Legend' (Rottnest Island Board, Perth, 1966), p. 74.

13 Henderson et. al., p. 14.

14 Neville Green, "Aborigines and Settlers" in C.T. Stannage, ed. A New History Of Western Australia (University of Western Australia Press Nedlands, 1981), p. 89-92.

15 Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession Of Simulacra", Art and Text, no. 23-24, 1987, p. 16.

16 Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Perth, File No. 88/699 'Deaths of Aborigines in Custody': List of 'Aboriginal Men Who Died At Rottnest Island, 1838-1900' compiled by Howard Pedersen.

17 Submission from Robert Bropho and others for funds to research and commemorate those who died at Rottnest Prison, March 1989. Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Perth, File No. 88/699 'Deaths of Aborigines in Custody'.

18 Abdul JanMohamed, "The Economy of Manichean Allegory: Function of Racial Difference in Colonialist Literature", Critical Inquiry, Vol. 12, No.1, Autumn 1985, p. 63.

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