Whose Body Is it Anyway? Decolonizing Narratives of Aboriginal Prisoners’ Health

When the British colonized Western Australia in 1829, they did so under the legal doctrine of “terra nullius,” or empty land. Of course, the area was inhabited – owned by the Indigenous Nyoongar people who were dispossessed from their land through frontier conflict, disease, physical dependency on European goods, and punishment under British law. By imprisoning Aboriginal people on Rottnest Island in Western Australia, the British government not only took control of Indigenous bodies, but also created narratives about Indigenous bodies to justify their policies.

Rottnest Island’s Indigenous name is Wadjemup, and it belongs to the Whadiuk Nyoongar people of Western Australia. It translates as “place across the water,” referring to the 11 miles of water that separate it from the mainland. The relative isolation of the island led the British to make it a prison for Aboriginal men in 1838, less than a decade after they colonized the region in 1829. It was envisioned as a healthy and humane form of punishment specifically catered to mobile lifestyles of Indigenous people. The 1840 act that established Rottnest stated that it would avoid the “close confinement in gaol….[which had] been found to operate most prejudicially to their health.”1

The Aboriginal prisoners lived in barracks, had short hours of work, and roamed the island daily. Over time, the prison regime became more punitive: with longer working hours, use of the lash and an octagonal single-celled prison (from 1864). The prison incarcerated 3676 Aboriginal men and boys between 1839 and 1931, making it the largest prison for Indigenous people in Western Australia.2

The prison was established at the height of humanitarian concern in the 1830s, but over the next 50 years the rapid expansion of the settler-frontier and harsher sentencing practices swelled Rottnest’s prison population.3 This overcrowding caused an outbreak of influenza between June and September 1883 that killed a third of the prison population: between 53 and 80 Aboriginal prisoners died out of 179 inmates.4 This was followed by a non-fatal outbreak of measles that affected all but six prisoners.5

Rottnest Island’s Burial Ground, 2013. (Author’s photograph)

Rumors about overcrowding and medical neglect on Rottnest had been circulating since the death of ten prisoners in 1882. The most senior official in the colony, Governor William Robinson, was harshly criticized for refusing to investigate despite regularly vacationing on the island. The latest outbreaks of influenza in the winter of 1883 coincided with the arrival of a new governor, Frederick Napier Broome, who was determined to intervene. After a visit to the prison hospital, Broome immediately established a commission “to inquire into the treatment of the Aboriginal Native Prisoners of the Crown in this Colony” in September 1883.6 The five-man commission undertook a series of interviews with six members of the staff and seven Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest Island. The seven prisoners’ anglicized names were Bob Thomas, Widgie Widgie Johnnie, Charlie, Sambo, Brandy, Harry, and Benjamin. They were selected because they came from all over the colony. Their convictions also varied, including murder, sheep spearing and to returning a stolen pipe to a policeman.

Lengthy transcripts of the Aboriginal prisoners’ speech were included in the published report and (unusually) staff members’ testimony was not. After allegations of a government cover-up, Indigenous voices seem to have been considered more authoritative than official ones. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that the prisoners’ testimony was all for show and did not actually shape the commission’s findings.

The commission argued that because the new arrivals were from the northerly tropical districts, they were inevitably susceptible to disease during winter months on a cool, windy island.7 The commissioners paid far less attention to the administration’s failure to provide basic provisions of new blankets and a spare uniform. This is something the prisoners were well aware of, testifying that: “my blanket [is] no good and old” (Widgie Widgie Johnson), “I have not [got] enough clothes” (Sambo) and “[the] clothes are not sufficient, no change is provided” (Harry).8

Laura Vann, Rottnest in relation to Western Australian coast, Convict Voyages, (2015).

The lack of uniforms was blamed partly on a traditional Aboriginal ritual of welcoming new arrivals by swapping clothes. However, since many prisoners arrived almost naked, this gesture (and their testimony) was probably motivated by practicality above all. By focusing on what they perceived to be Indigenous bodily weakness and behavior, the commissioners avoided placing blame on the prison administration and by extension the colonial government.

The commission also insisted on blaming “Indigenous behaviors,” rather than the prison administration, on the subject of hygiene. The commission criticized the long hair and lack of washing among Aboriginal prisoners, which they attributed to their “bush habits.” Yet the prison did not provide soap or washtubs. None of the prisoners complained about feeling dirty thanks to a weekly swim, showing their testimony was not the driving force for this regime change. If asked, most prisoners would have vehemently resisted hair removal, as beards and hair arrangements were important markers of identity.9 The commission wanted to erase Indigenous identity, claiming that shaving and hair-cutting would have a “civilizing effect” on the prisoners.10 Clearly, bringing the Aboriginal prisoners’ bodies under control was more important than medical concerns.

When the commission arrived, the prison population were still very ill, suffering from the measles and reeling from the deaths of a third of their number.11 The commission called this “disadvantageous circumstances” for their investigation, but the prisoners felt this far more viscerally.12 Five of the seven prisoners who testified described fear of catching an illness, seemingly in response to the question “Do you like Rottnest?” (the questions weren’t reproduced, so we can’t be sure).

One Aboriginal prisoner named Harry articulated his fear of illness in terms of a fear of contagion: “I do not like Rottnest. I am afraid of catching the complaints of others, and might get ill.”13 This is the most prevalent statement in the prisoners’ testimony, and yet it was barely acknowledged by prison commissioners who expected little emotional complexity from Indigenous people.

The government commission used and interpreted Indigenous prisoners’ testimony through a racial lens. Their perspectives were only meaningful if they backed up existing ideas on European norms of punishment and healthcare. This allowed the government to void itself of responsibility for failing to properly look after Aboriginal people directly under their care. Yet if we decolonize these Indigenous narratives we can see strategies of resilience among the surviving Indigenous prisoners on Rottnest.

Notes

  1. An Act to constitute Rottnest a Legal Prison, 2 July 1840, BPP 1844, vol. XXXIV, no. 627, Aborigines (Australian colonies), 375. Return to text.
  2. Neville Green and Susan Moon, Far From Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island, 1838-1931 (Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1997), 8, 97. Return to text.
  3. Robinson to Fraser, 19 June 1882, The National Archives [UK], CO 18/199, 490. Return to text.
  4. Green and Moon, Far From Home, 63. Return to text.
  5. Broome to Fraser, 22 December 1883, State Record Office of Western Australia (hereafter, SROWA), cons. 527 ser. 675, no. 1883/0146. Return to text.
  6. Western Australian Parliamentary Papers (hereafter WAPP) 1884, no. 32, Report of a Commission appointed by His Excellency the Governor to inquire into the treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners of the Crown in this Colony: And also certain other matters relative to Aboriginal Natives, Perth, p. 3. Return to text.
  7. This was in line with the medical paradigms of the time, see: Cassell’s Household Guide: A Complete Encyclopaedia of Domestic and Social Economy, vol. 1, London, 1869, 187. Return to text.
  8. WAPP, no. 32, Report into the treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners, 13. Return to text.
  9. Shino Konishi, Aboriginal Male in the Enlightenment World (London: Chatto and Pickering, 2015), 48-50. Return to text.
  10. Report into the treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners, 14. Return to text.
  11. Waylen to Fraser, 31 October 1883 and Barnett to Fraser, 2 November 1883, SROWA, cons. 527, ser. 675, 1883/0146. Return to text.
  12. Report into the treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners, 6. Return to text.
  13. Report into the treatment of Aboriginal Native Prisoners, 13. Return to text.

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