Lock hospitals: Dark chapter in Australia’s past slowly revealed
Aboriginal people across Australia were medically incarcerated on the Bernier and Dorre Islands, with many made to live in makeshift humpies or houses. (Supplied: Battye Library (21086P))
Between 1908 and 1919, more than 800 Aboriginal men, women and children were removed from their homelands across Western Australia and taken to “lock hospitals” on Bernier and Dorre Islands for treatment for suspected venereal diseases. Many never returned home.
For generations, Aboriginal people across WA were not allowed to talk about the islands because it was too traumatic.
Kathleen Muslin was told a story by one elder in Carnarvon, the remote town closest to the Bernier and Dorre Islands.
“As a young girl she would overhear the older women talking about their loved ones being taken over to the islands never to return,” Ms Muslins said.
“She asked her mother, ‘What’s all that about?’, and her mother said, ‘Don’t talk about it. You are not allowed to talk about the islands. Just cover your eyes and just point to the islands’.
“The reason being was because it was so traumatic and having that hurt inside, you can’t really let that go.
“It is time that we need to let that hurt go. Not only for ourselves, but for our future generations.”
A shocking history
Over a period of 11 years women and children were taken to the lock hospital at Dorre Island, while the men went to Bernier Island. (Supplied: Battye Library (725B-22))
After being diagnosed by policemen as having suspected venereal diseases people were rounded up, many placed in chains, and taken to the islands.
This was facilitated by the Aboriginal Act of 1905.
The islands’ facilities were inadequate, people had no contact with their families back home, and they were made to undergo experimental medical treatments.
Academics have said about 40 per cent of those confined never returned home, and more than 100 people died on the islands and were buried in unmarked graves.
WA Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, said she was shocked by the story, including the fact she had never heard of it before it was raised with her earlier this year, even though she had worked in Carnarvon in the 1980s.
“I’ve never, ever heard of this story, so I was really very surprised,” she said.
“Because of the degree of trauma and the shame surrounding it meant that it was not an issue that was raised by Aboriginal people.
“It was such a shameful experience, such a horrific experience, that they never spoke about it.”
The WA Government said it is the first in Australia to acknowledge the lock hospital history.
The Government is funding a statue to be built near the historic One Mile Jetty in Carnarvon, where the people would have been loaded onto boats bound for the islands.
‘A truly disgraceful story’
The Bernier and Dorre Island lock hospitals are part of a wider story of the medical incarceration of Aboriginal people across Australia.
Lock hospitals also existed in Port Hedland, in WA, and later in Barambah and Fantome Island in Queensland.
Leprosy field hospitals were also established in WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
“This is a truly disgraceful story,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“This [the statue] is saying, ‘This is part of our story’.
“We’ve got to be grown up. We’ve got to acknowledge what happened if we as a community are to move forward.”
The Shire of Carnarvon has also acknowledged the history, and is working with members of the local Aboriginal community on plans for a ceremony in Carnarvon on January 9, 2019.
This will be one hundred years to the day since the last person was removed from the islands and the hospitals closed.
Ms Muslin grew up in Carnarvon hearing stories of how her grandfather had been searching for her great-grandmother, who was taken away from the Broome area.
She has been instrumental in pushing for greater acknowledgement of the lock hospital history, along with Bob Dorey, another member of the Carnarvon Aboriginal community.
Kathleen Muslin and Bob Dorey have been working together for four years to bring the histories of the lock hospitals on Bernier and Dorre Island to light, and have the dark chapter in Australia’s history acknowledged. (ABC North West: Karen Michelmore)
“There were a lot of people who didn’t know the true history of the islands and what happened to our ancestors over there,” Ms Muslin said.
“My great-grandmother, she’s still buried over there, with a lot of other Aboriginal people still buried over there in unmarked graves.
“It’s important, not only for myself, but it’s important for my children and grandchildren to know what happened to their ancestors.
“It’s important for other families because of the trauma and the hurt that we have suffered, knowing what happened to our ancestors and the horrific things that were done to them.
“They were experimented on to find a cure for venereal diseases, they were taken over there and locked up on the islands.
“A lot of them didn’t even have STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. There were many healthy Aboriginal people who were taken over there, children as well.
“And what I think is, one form of that was to remove them from stations and other areas, to get them off the land so the stations could be opened up.”
Mr Dorey, who will perform a ceremony with other elders in Carnarvon next year, said he wants the wider Australian public to know the story of the lock hospitals.
“I would like them to know everything about them, what happened over there,” he said.
“It’s our story. We’ve learned everybody else’s story in school but nothing like this.”
History slowly emerges
The history of the lock hospitals has emerged through the work of several academics working on separate projects.
Health journalist Melissa Sweet picked up a travel book at an airport a decade ago that had a few pages which mentioned the lock hospital history.
“I was transfixed when I read it, because at that stage I had been a health journalist for many years and I had never heard this history of the lock hospitals,” she said.
Ms Sweet started asking around, and was surprised at how few people had known about this history.
“That’s where my journey began to work with community members to bring wider awareness to the history.”
Archaeologist Jade Pervan has found a number of medical artefacts from the lock hospital history. (Supplied: Jade Pervan)
Ms Sweet travelled to Carnarvon where she met Ms Muslin.
The pair have since worked closely on the issue.
As Ms Sweet dug further, she realised the history was part of a much bigger national story about medical incarceration and said while historic the story is still relevant today.
“It’s not about saying it’s all in the past and this doesn’t go on any more,” she said.
“I was always asking people why does this history matter, and people would bring up the current history of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the prison system.
“A lot of the concerns still remain.”
Medical artefacts uncovered
Archaeologist Jade Pervan grew up in Carnarvon and had heard a little bit of the story.
When she was undertaking research at the University of Western Australia she knew academics were talking about it, and wanted to dig further.
Ms Pervan uncovered a lot of archaeological materials on the islands dating from the lock hospital period.
She discovered European artefacts associated with the doctors and nurses at the hospitals such as expensive ceramic ware, personal items like combs and shoes, and even a piano.
This contrasted sharply with the items connected with the Indigenous people.
“The Aboriginal patients didn’t live in the houses. They were confined to the islands themselves so they had to make makeshift humpies or houses,” Ms Pervan said.
“They were given rations, so if the rations didn’t come in off the boat in time they would have hunted and foraged for the food off the islands.
Ms Pervan said the lock hospitals were established with racial motives.
“We know that these lock hospitals were set up after the 1905 Aboriginal Act which was where they didn’t want supposed diseases that Aboriginal people had passed onto the Europeans,” she said.
“It was likely that a lot of the Aboriginal people didn’t have any of those diseases, in this case it was venereal disease or syphilis, and they were probably placed on there for other reasons.
“It was a very racially-based removal of people to these islands. Europeans at the time were not interned for having the same diseases.”