In 1696 Dutch sailor Willem de Vlamingh named the island 't Eylandt 't Rottenest ("Rats' Nest Island") after he mistook the quokkas on the island for giant rats.
Unoccupied at the time of the colonisation in 1829 Wadjemup was the ideal location to incarcerate and rehabilitate a growing number of Aboriginal people deemed to be a threat by settler society. It was acknowledged at the time that the methods of
incarceration being used were deemed to be inadequate.
The original intent for establishing a prison at Wadjemup was that it “offered many advantages both as a place of detention and affording a greater degree of personal liberty”.
From 1838 through to 1931 over 3500 Aboriginal men and one Aboriginal woman were imprisoned there. Over the course of its existence the island was also a place of incarceration of non-Aboriginal prisoners, juveniles within a Reformatory (1880-1902) and
1300 German, Serbs and Croatian internees who were held there for a short time during World War 1 (1914-1916).
"An Act to constitute the Island of Rottnest a Legal Prison", 1841.
At the turn of the 20th century there were 50 Aboriginal prisoners on Wadjemup, 130 less than were on the island seven years earlier. By May 1903 this number had dwindled to 21 with a further eight transferred to work in government offices such
as police and telegraph stations across the state until they completed their sentences.
In June 1904 the prison was reclassified as a penal settlement becoming an annex of Fremantle Gaol both for Aboriginal and good conduct non-Aboriginal prisoners. By the end of the decade moves were being planned for the removal of all non-Aboriginal
prisoners to the mainland. This did not occur and they continued to remain at the prison until it closed.
Throughout the history of the prison the Aboriginal inmates were assigned to more basic tasks such as wood chopping, carting water and sanitary requirements. The non-Aboriginal prisoners attending to the more sophisticated tasks. This system remained
unchanged until the close of the prison in 1931.