Katherine Roscoe

National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association postgraduate scholar, 2016–17

Topic: Island Chains: carceral islands and the colonisation of Australia, 1788–1901

Biographical note

Katherine Roscoe is a PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. Her thesis examines the transportation of convicts and prisoners to islands surrounding the Australian mainland. Her research interests are colonialism and imperialism, the history of crime and punishment, and maritime history. Katherine works as part of the European Research Council project the ‘Carceral Archipelago’, which is the first global history of convicts and penal colonies from 1415 to 1960 (convictvoyages.org).

In 2014 she received an Australian Bicentennial Scholarship from the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London, to undertake research in Sydney and Perth. She has published ‘“Too many kill ’em. Too many make ’em ill”: the Commission into Rottnest Island Prison as the context for Section 70’ in a special issue of Studies in Western Australian History (vol. 3, 2016), and co-edited a special issue on 'Networks in Imperial History', Journal of World History (vol. 3, no. 4, 2015).

Project summary

Katherine Roscoe argues that the transportation of European, Aboriginal and Chinese convicts to offshore islands was essential to the colonisation of the vast Australian mainland. Using prison records and colonial office correspondence as the primary source material, six chapters shift the historical lens to the peripheries of Australia. Each chapter focuses on how island geography shaped the penal establishments and how they, in turn, shaped the administration of empire. The thesis uses three case studies – Melville Island in the Northern Territory (1824–28), Cockatoo Island in New South Wales (1839–69), and Rottnest Island in Western Australia (1839–1903) – to understand the role of maritime penal spaces in the settler–colonial project. Exploiting a unique tension of islands as both isolated and connected by sea, the thesis advances historical understanding of the relationship between punishment, labour and environment at the very fringes of empire.

This scholarship will enable Katherine to access archival material about convict labour on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup), including correspondence files and plans and drawings of lighthouses and lighthouse sites dating back to the late 1800s. Aboriginal prisoners on Rottnest built not one, but two, lighthouses to guide ships to the busy port at Fremantle – one of countless examples of convicts building the maritime infrastructure necessary for global trade. Rottnest’s inmates also harvested salt, an essential commodity for preserving goods, which was sold at Fremantle. Some of Rottnest’s inmates also worked as servants for numerous governors of Western Australia who would holiday on the island with their families. This prefaced ‘Rotto’s’ transition to the leisure destination it is today, with 570,000 tourists visiting in 2014–15.

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