Rottnest Island Internment Camp

Rottnest Island is located off the coast of Western Australia near Fremantle. Rottnest Island had been used as a prison and then a tourist destination before the Commonwealth Government took it over at the outbreak of World War One for use as an internment camp. The internment camp was located at Thomson Bay.

Rottnest Island Map, c.1920. Courtesy National Library of Australia

A large number of those interned at Rottnest Island were Austrian Slavs forced out of work from the Kalgoorlie mines. Since their homelands were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they were considered enemy aliens. Australian trade unions used this as an excuse to remove ‘foreign’ workers from the Australian labour market. Other internees and prisoners of war were Austrian and Italian.

The Rottnest Island camp also housed the Western Australian German Consul General and crews of the German merchant vessels SS Greifswald, SS Thüringen and SS Neumünster captured off Fremantle at the outset of war.

The first internee arrivals to Rottnest Island lived in stone houses. Later arrivals had to make do with the tents originally erected for short tourist stays. Sanitation in the camp was poor, food supplies could be insufficient and internees were required to do their own cooking at their tents as there was no camp kitchen. The records contain complaints about these conditions and also about mistreatment by guards. Despite this, the internees made efforts to make their time in the camp more enjoyable. They formed a band and football team, held lectures, opened a café and enjoyed the beach and the sea.

The internees and guards needed day to day items like tobacco and coffee etc which was supplied by the State Store on the island operated by the Western Australian Tourism Department. The State Store had the monopoly on the island and over charged the internees and guards. After complaints the Military Commander of the Camp authorised the transportation of goods from the mainland to be sold at cheaper prices at the Camp Canteen as happened in other camps. The Western Australian Government complained to the Prime Minister Andrew Fischer about the loss of revenues from the trade with internees. The Prime Minister responded ‘it is not considered that the department is bound to give the State Store the monopoly of the prisoner of war trade as long as the camp remains at Rottnest’.

After complaints from internees about the treatment and conditions and constant bickering with the State Government, the Commonwealth closed the Rottnest Island camp in 1915.

The Rottnest Island camp held almost 1000 men prior to its closure in late 1915. The internees were transferred first to Garden Island Internment Camp in Western Australia and then to Holsworthy in New South Wales.