Cockatoo Island; From Convict Past to Creative Presence

It’s the biggest island in Sydney harbour. Named after the hordes of Cockatoos, both black and white, which used to inhabit the thick forest of trees on the island. Now of course, there are few trees and none of those raucous birds to be heard or seen. Like Sydney town itself, the island has undergone many transformations-from a convict prison in the 1830’s which harboured the most recalcitrant (or those whose spirit had refused to be broken by floggings and solitary confinement) to a shipbuiding powerhouse and finally an cultural precinct.

When you think of it, the Australian non-indigenous story is a fairly new contributor to world history. Only 200 years of our presence on this island continent. Our European beginnings were brutal, comprised of convict exiles and their jailers from Britain, unwilling settlers in a land so very different to the mother country. Yet they stayed-due in large part to the tyranny of distance-and made a life for themselves and their heirs. But as we see so often in life, those who were brutalised for such petty survival crimes, did their best to brutalise and exterminate the First Australians. Even today there are any number of Australians who deny the frontier wars and massacres. But you only have to look at the sad relics of convict torture on Cockatoo Island to appreciate where and how such torture continues to manifest.


I often think of the big wound in the Australian psyche (of course every country has their wound, like any individual). You can see it played out in modern day politics. We were Britain’s unwanted, forced into stealing to survive then flung into the extreme pacific ocean where a continent was identified as a large penal colony. Today when faced with the flow of desperate refugees to our part of the world, we refuse to accept them and instead send them back to sea and if they dont drown, we lock them up in an island prison like Nauru or Manus where they are tortured and languish without hope.

Just like the convicts, our ancestors.

This sad situation was brought home to me when I visited the Industrial precinct where our shipbuilding past is located. A century after the convicts we had gained economic prosperity and our industrious spirit was evident in the number of ships we made.

The Industrial life on the island wound to a halt in the 1980’s as leaders, politicans and the community considered the potential of the big rock in the middle of the harbour.

Today the island is easily accessible for tourists and Sydneysiders alike. Just a short ferry trip from Barangaroo wharf will take you to the place which now hosts the Sydney Biennale Art Exhibition. Its the perfect place for Australia’s largest contemporary visual arts event which showcases innovative and thought-provoking works from around the world.


This year 20 artists are presenting works echoing the history of the now UNESCO World-Heritage-listed site around movement, migration, production and participation, including works that grow or morph over the course of the Biennale.


I was most struck by Ai Wei Wei’s The law of journey, an amazing construction of a huge black rubber dinghy with faceless people also made of the same substance. Around the work are quotes about “the other” those who are different, desperate yet also human. It is placed in the same area where the workers produced such huge ships as “The Empress of Australia”.

This is the ship of our shadow which we are all building when we turn away from compassionately acknowledging the flow of those who seek asylum in Australia.

4 thoughts on “Cockatoo Island; From Convict Past to Creative Presence

  1. Very strong and honest post. It is tragic that human beings brutalise each other and your observation in the beginning sounds true. I have never heard of Cockatoo island although I have read much about Australian history and that of the Aboriginal.
    Yes, it must be a shadow on the history that so much destruction took place. Sadly this has happened in many places in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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