Eleven miles by ferry from Perth is Western Australia’s “premier tourist destination”. This is Rottnest Island, whose scabrous wild beauty and isolation evoked for me Robben Island in South Africa. Empires are never short of devil’s islands; what makes Rottnest different, indeed what makes Australia different, is a silence and denial on an epic scale.
“Five awesome reasons to visit!” the brochure says. These range from “family fun” to “historical Rottnest”, which describes the island as “a guiding light, a defender of the peace”. In eight pages of prescribed family fun, there is just one word of truth: prison.
More than any colonial society, Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets, past and present, to a wilful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts often dismissed the most enduring human entity on earth: the indigenous first Australians. “It was quite useless to treat them fairly,” wrote the historian Stephen Roberts, “since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude.” His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: “We are civilised today and they are not.”
That Australia has since changed is not disputed. To measure this change, a visit to Western Australia is essential. The vast, richest state is home to the world’s biggest “resources” boom: iron ore, gold, nickel, oil, petroleum, gas. Profits are in the multiple billions. When Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to impose a modest tax, he was overthrown by his own party following a $22 million propaganda campaign by the mining companies, whose mates in the media uphold the world’s first Murdocracy. “Assisted by Rio Tinto” reads the last line of an unctuous newspaper report on the benefits of the boom to black Australians. At airports, arriving passengers are greeted by banners with smiling aboriginal faces in hard hats, promoting the plunderers of their land. “This is our story” says the slogan. It isn’t.
Barely a fraction of mining, oil and gas revenue has benefited Aboriginal communities, whose poverty is an enduring shock. In Roeburne, in the minerals-rich Pilbara, 80 per cent of the children suffer from an ear infection called otitis media that causes partial deafness. Or they go blind from preventable trachoma. Or they contract Dickensian infections. That is their story.
The Nyoongar people have lived around what is now Perth for many thousands of years. Incredibly, they survive. Noel Nannup, a Nyoongar elder, and Marianne McKay, a Nyoongar activist, accompanied me to Rottnest Island. Noel Nannup’s protective presence was important to Marianne. Unlike the jolly tourists heading for “Rotto”, they spent days “preparing for the pain”. “All our families remember what was done,” said Noel.
What was done was the torture, humiliation and murder of the First Australians. Wrenched from their communities in an insidious genocide that divided and emasculated the indigenous nations, shackled men and boys as young as eight endured the perilous nine-hour journey in an open longboat. Cold, sick and terrified prisoners were jammed into a windowless “holding cell”, like an oversized kennel. Today, an historical plaque refers to it as The Boathouse. The suppression is breathtaking.
In the prison known as The Quod, as many as 167 Aboriginal prisoners were locked in 28 tiny cells. This lasted well into the twentieth century. I booked a room there. The prison is now called Rottnest Lodge. It has a spa and there are double bunks for children: family fun. Noel Nannup stood in the centre of the room and described its echoes of terrible suffering. The window looked out on where a gallows had stood, where tourists now sunbathed. None had a clue. A “country club” overlooks a mass grave. A psychopath who ran the Quod was Henry Vincent, who liked to whip prisoners and murdered two of them, an inquiry was told. Today, Vincent is venerated as a “pioneer” and tourists are encouraged to follow the “Vincent Way Heritage Trail”. In the Governor’s Bar, the annual Henry Vincent Golf Trophy is displayed. No one there had a clue.
“Rotto” is not the past. On 28 March, Richard Harding, formerly Inspector of Custodial Services, declared Western Australia a “State of Imprisonment”. During the boom, Aboriginal incarceration has more than doubled. Interned in often rat-infested cells, almost 60 per cent of the state’s young prisoners are Aboriginal – out of 2.5 per cent of the population. While their mothers hold vigils outside, aboriginal children are held in solitary confinement in an adult jail. A former prisons minister, Margaret Quirk, told me the state was now “racking and stacking” black Australians. Their rate of incarceration is five times that of apartheid South Africa.
The Aboriginal stereotype is violent, yet the violence routinely meted out to black Australians by authority is of little interest. Deaths in custody are common. An elder known as Mr. Ward was arrested for driving under the influence on a bush road. In searing heat, he was driven more than 300 miles in the iron pod of a prison van run by the British security company GSL. Inside the mobile cell the temperature reached 50 degrees centigrade. Mr. Ward cooked to death, his stomach burned raw where he had collapsed on the van’s scorching floor. The coroner called it a “disgrace”, yet the Department of Public Prosecutions refused to take action, saying there was “no evidence”. This is not unusual. The two security van drivers were eventually fined under Health and Safety rules.
Eco-tourism is also booming in Western Australia. The Kimberley region is popular with Europeans, who appreciate its ancient flora and fauna. Last year, 40 aboriginal youngsters killed themselves here, a 100-fold increase. When I first reported indigenous Australia a generation ago, black suicide was rare. Today, the despair is so profound that the second cause of Aboriginal death is suicide. It is booming.
John Pilger’s film on Australia, Utopia, will be released in the autumn.
This article was first published in the Guardian.