Eleven miles by ferry from Perth is Western Australia's "premier tourist destination." This is Rottnest Island, whose scabrous wild beauty and isolation evoked, for me, Robben Island in South Africa. Empires are never short of devil's islands; what makes Rottnest different -- indeed, what makes Australia different -- is silence and denial on an epic scale.
"Five awesome reasons to visit!" the brochure says. These range from "family fun" to "historical Rottnest." The island is described as "a guiding light, a defender of the peace." In eight pages of prescribed family fun, there is just one word of truth -- prison.
More than any other colonial society, Australia consigns its dirtiest secrets, past and present, to willful ignorance or indifference. When I was at school in Sydney, standard texts all but dismissed the most enduring human entity on earth, the indigenous first Australians. "It was quite useless to treat them fairly," the historian Stephen Roberts wrote, "since they were completely amoral and incapable of sincere and prolonged gratitude." His acclaimed colleague Russel Ward was succinct: "We are civilised today and they are not."
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