Cockatoo Island

14 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next series of site visits, I stopped off in Sydney for a couple of days. I managed to visit a couple of sites, Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks which form part of the UNESCO world heritage Convict Sites. As such they are important examples of multi-sited penal heritage and as a result of their UNESCO status suggest various forms of ‘best practice’ in terms of accessibility, legibility and so on. There is work being done in both New Caledonia and French Guiana to produce a multi-sited concept of penal heritage and to use this as a basis for applying for UNESCO world heritage status. This is far more advanced in New Caledonia with the Itinéraire Bagne (a series of panels marking former convict sites at various sites across the South Province including Île des Pins). In French Guiana work is still being done to locate, map and document the various vestiges along the Maroni river which indicate the different camps and satellite operations organised around the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni and the Camp de la Rélégation at Saint Jean. Consequently, the sites in Sydney seem to be very useful in identifying different agendas and levels of community-led interest in convict heritage.

En route to Cockatoo Island

A short ferry hop from the Sydney Harbour terminal, Cockatoo Island was once home to convict labour. Like prison islands elsewhere, it was a site where those caught re-offending were sent. It was established in 1839 to deal with overcrowding on Norfolk Island. A prison within the penal colony. Convicts mined the sandstone which was used for building in Sydney as well as building the administrative buildings on the island itself. Later, after the closure of the penal settlement in 1869, the island is renamed Biloela (aboriginal for black or white cockatoo) in order to forget its convict history. It is used for shipbuilding but between 1871 and 1888 it also housed a reform school for girls. An orphanage for 500 boys was housed in an old ship docked on the island between 1871 and 1911. The island became a prison once more in 1888-1908. Today it’s possible to explore the old dockyard buildings as well as a small number of excavated cells only discovered in 2009, a year before the site acquired UNESCO status. You can also camp on the island.


There is an aesthetic of rust which dominates the island’s buildings and which inserts an important layer of history between the island’s use as a prison and its museification. Its  use as a reform school provides an interesting example of the link between education and incarceration that emerged with the 19th century notion of discipline. Similarly, the ship-orphanage cannot but evoke the earlier prison hulks which were a common feature in convict transportation. For me these also provide an important reminder of how the closure of one form of imprisonment often leads to different forms of detention or containment.

Dog Leg Tunnel through the sandstone

Given the proximity to Sydney harbour, doesn’t have the same sense of isolation as other prison islands. It is also a space that is quickly and cheaply accessed by regular ferries. While this does not necessarily mean it is visited by a wide range of local and tourist visitors, it does suggest a space that has the potential to be more embedded in community life and events (as indeed its brochure suggests – the Sydney Biennale was held there for the first time in 2008) than many former prison islands elsewhere which have since become luxury resorts only accessible by private boats or airplane. Its accessibility (together with its empty warehouses and rust aesthetic) also explain why it has been used for various film and tv shows including X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Unbroken (2014).




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