Healing after a century of trauma

Midwest Times
Bob Dorey dances in a ceremony to release the spirits on Bernier and Dorre Islands so they can return to their country.
Camera IconBob Dorey dances in a ceremony to release the spirits on Bernier and Dorre Islands so they can return to their country. Credit: Mitchell Ward of Croakey

Between 1908 and 1919 hundreds of Aboriginal people from all over WA were exiled to Bernier and Dorre islands off the Carnarvon coast.

Their “crime” was that they were suspected of having venereal disease, and they were isolated in “lock hospitals” to prevent them having sex with the general public.

Wednesday, January 9, was the 100th anniversary of the date the last of the prisoner-patients were brought back to the mainland.

To mark the date, their descendants invited the Australian community to join them in a healing ceremony at Carnarvon and about 250 people attended.

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This was followed by a “yarning circle” the following day, with about 50 people.

Malgana-Yawuru woman Kathleen Musulin, whose great-grandmother was taken from the Broome area to the lock hospitals, said the ceremony was an important milestone in enabling healing.

“Some of us don’t realise the trauma we carry with us,” she said.

“I’ve experienced it myself through this whole process because I’m hurting.

“I’m hurting for my great-grandmother, and all of those other Aboriginal people who lived through that horrible time.”

Yinggarda-Malgana elder Bob Dorey said it was vital the history was shared more widely.

“It is our story, it has to be told, of what our old people had to go through, which has been covered up for too long,” he said.

“To start the healing without acknowledgement, there is no healing.”

Badimia Yamaji woman and Curtin University lecturer Dr Robin Barrington said the lock hospitals were established under the WA Government’s Aborigines Act 1905. “It was an inhumane government project intended to “cure” Aboriginal people suspected of having venereal disease, one that failed, and caused untold deaths and misery,” she said.

“By the time the Aboriginal prisoner patients arrived at the port of Carnarvon they had already been transported, many in chains, hundreds, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their country.

“They then faced a dangerous and torturous sea voyage of some 50km.

“Some women were pregnant and gave birth in exile.”

A Carnarvon Shire spokesperson said the ceremony launched a year of activities in Carnarvon to ensure wider acknowledgement of this traumatic history.

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