The Guardian • Issue #1964

National Aboriginal Reconciliation Week

Remembering the Lock Hospitals of Bernier and Dorre Islands

The Bernier and Dorre Islands are two narrow islands located fifty-two km from the Western Australian port city of Carnarvon and was the location of a barbaric and bizarre social experiment by the Western Australian government at the time under the auspices of the Aborigines Act 1905. The aim of the WA Aborigines Act 1905 was to administrate on behalf of Indigenous people because they were viewed as a dying race and therefore, with the “proper treatment,” they could be assimilated into the society and culture of the colonising non-Aboriginal people.

Two lock hospitals were established on the two adjacent islands to remove Aboriginal people from the Gascoyne and Pilbara regions as they had non-specific diagnosis of venereal diseases. Police officers were empowered under the act to facilitate the removal of the Aboriginal people and move them to Carnarvon, where they were shipped on a boat from the One Mile Jetty to the two islands. The slow all-day journey by boat would have been an unfamiliar and tiring experience for many Indigenous people. Some did not survive the arduous land and sea journey from their native country. The lock hospitals were established on the Islands in 1908 and continued until 9th January 1919, when they were closed. The remaining patients shifted to a similar facility further north at Port Hedland – another coastal town established to serve pastoral interests. Of the more than 800 Aboriginal people who were transported to the two islands, it is conservatively estimated that about 200 people died on the islands and were buried in unmarked graves.

It is known that many people who were transported there did not have venereal diseases and that also children were transported to the islands. In some cases, children were separated from their parents, who were then transported to the islands. The Lock Hospital experiment contributed to the Stolen Generations. With the removal of Aboriginal people under the guise of a benevolent act of welfare, the Aborigines Act 1905 allowed pastoralists to take up leases on once-occupied land.

However, the Department of Justice National Reconciliation Week Symposium held on the 27th of May 2021 sought to show there were far more traumatic and long term affects suffered by the Aboriginal people as a consequence of this “misguided” and poorly administered attempt at “welfare for their own good.” The first of two speakers was archaeologist Dr Jade Pervan who said that the operation of the Lock Hospitals led to the dispossession of their land and the dislocation and breakdown of Aboriginal society, and following that, to intergenerational trauma. Pervan said the Lock Hospitals at Bernier and Dorre Islands were not unique, and medical incarcerations took place in several locations across northern Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland.

As an archaeologist, Pervan’s excavations of the islands revealed a stark difference in the artefacts of everyday life between the building where the doctors and nurses lived, such as expensive ceramic ware, personal items like combs and shoes, and even a piano. The medical staff received better food while the Aboriginal people were given rations of tea, damper and salted meat. Notwithstanding their isolation from their traditional lands, the Aboriginal people continued to speak their language, practice their cultural beliefs, and pass them on. Not all the medical staff were in agreement with the exercise. In 1908 one doctor arranged for a petition to be circulated among the residents to say they had finished the time on the island that had been prescribed to them initially and should be allowed to return to their homes.  There were medical experiments carried out on the Aboriginal people including one which involved comparing the Aboriginal people to monkeys brought to the island for that purpose. It is also known that noted anthropologist Daisy Bates visited the island, and though she was encouraged by their treatment at the time, she spoke disparagingly of the hospitals in her later years.

The second speaker was Kathleen Musulin, a Yawaru and Malgana woman with family connections to the Bernier and Dorre Islands Lock Hospitals history and who works for the Department of Justice at the Wandoo Rehabilitation Prison as a mental health worker. A video was also played of the work carried out on the island and narrated by Carnarvon Aboriginal elder Bob Dorey. The video also discussed how community workshops took place among Aboriginal people in Carnarvon to try to involve people who had family who had been on the island. As part of the outcome of that project, there is a need for education and awareness of what happened on the islands. The islands should be a place of healing, and there should be a memorial to acknowledge the truth of what happened. It should examine why people were taken to the island, what was done to the people in some cases while they were on the island and why they died there. A memorial built in 2019 now stands at the heritage precinct adjacent to the One Mile Jetty (or what is left of it after Cyclone Seroja almost completely destroyed it in April 2021) called “Don’t look at the islands” of an Aboriginal woman with her arm outstretched pointing towards the island with a grim-faced young boy holding her tightly. Kathleen Musulin concluded her talk by noting, “My Aboriginal people are still on the journey of healing from the consequences of the effects of what happened on the islands.” The truth belongs to all of us and knowing what happened at the Lock Hospitals on Bernier and Dorre Islands will help achieve a just future for all of us.

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