Rottnest Island’s history stretches back thousands of years, back to when the island was still connected to mainland Australia.
Aboriginal artifacts suggest there was significant human occupation until ~7,000 years ago when the rising sea levels resulted in the separation of the island. Without boats Aboriginal people on the mainland weren’t able to make the crossing, leaving the island uninhabited for the next several thousand years. Rottnest Island features in Noongar Aboriginal mythology as Wadjemup, meaning "place across the water where the spirits are".
In the middle of the second millennium, European settlers came across the island and started to build settlements on the island. The island became a central exporter of salt, with several salt lakes supplying the Australian mainland.
Rottnest Island still goes by many names – known as Wadjemup to the local Noongar people, and colloquially known as Rotto. Today, it is a popular holiday destination, with ~500,000 annual visitors.
Due to its rich social and geological history as well as a truly unique ecosystem, Rottnest Island has been classified as an A-class reserve – the highest level of protection afforded to public land.
‘t Eylandt 't Rottenest
After separating from the mainland, the island remained uninhabited until 13 Dutch sailors from the Waeckende Boey landed near Bathurst Point on the 19 March 1658. This marked the beginning of the European exploration and settlement on the island. In 1696, Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh spent 6 days exploring the island before giving it the name 't Eylandt 't Rottenest ("Rats' Nest Island") after the quokkas which he mistook for giant rats. In his reports, Willem described Rottnest Island as "...a paradise on earth".
Swan River Colony Offshoot
A couple hundred years later, William Clarke and Robert Thomson received land grants from the British Swan River Colony for pastureland and town lots to be built on the island. In 1831 Thomson moved his family to the island and began building up the island’s main settlement at Thompson Bay. Pastureland for hay production was developed west of Herschel Lake, while several salt lakes were harvested, and the salt was exported to the mainland. Today, you can wander through the main settlement and be transported back through time as you stroll past early colonial cottages, including the salt stores.
Throughout most of the European exploration and settlement, Rottnest Island communicated with the mainland of Western Australia through semaphore flags and flares. Up until the 1880s, a manned lookout at Bathurst Point included a signalling station, which conveyed shipping information between the island’s Wadjemup Lighthouse and Arthur Head on the mainland. Wadjemup Lighthouse has undergone many upgrades throughout its history, continuing to be in operation today by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
Rottnest Island Fortress
During World War II, Rottnest Island was an important part of the defense of Fremantle port. Military fixtures including the railway, barracks, concrete lookouts, bunkers and four large guns positioned at Oliver Hill and Bickley Point became known as the "Rottnest Island Fortress". Much of this infrastructure was decommissioned after WWII and in the 1990s the gun emplacements and railway were extensively reconstructed. Today, you can set up camp in the old barracks, take a tour of the guns and tunnels, and journey to the battery on the train from Kingstown Barracks.
Rottnest Island has a long history with Wadjemup. The traditional owners of Rottnest Island are the Whadjuk Noongar people. The name for Rottnest Island in the Noongar language is Wadjemup, which means ‘place across the water where the spirits are’.