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Rotto history gives food for thought
Rottnest Island cultural heritage manager Harriet Wyatt and ranger Jason Mant. Picture: Guy Magowan/The West Australian

When we think of Rottnest Island, we think of beaches, quokkas and bikes.

We certainly don't think of wheat, apples and pigs.

But for a significant part of the 19th century, the island boasted an agricultural industry that fed its residents and saw bags of grain and produce shipped to the mainland.

The island's cultural and heritage manager, Harriet Wyatt, is currently researching the its agricultural history and has uncovered interesting insights into its earliest pioneers.

"I think many visitors would be surprised at the scale of the farming operations that once occurred on Rottnest," Mrs Wyatt said. "We now know they had quite considerable success growing various grains, fruit and vegetables.

"We also know they kept sheep, goats, pigs and poultry.

"Harvesting was done by the Aboriginal prisoners and recent archaeological investigations at the site of the current museum have confirmed that the wheat was milled there."

Much of the groundwork for the island's farm business was laid by its original settler, Robert Thomson - after whom Thomson Bay is named.

Thomson, his wife Caroline and eight of their 12 children arrived in WA on one of the first boatloads of settlers in 1829.

By March 1832, he had moved to the island seemingly in mortal dread of mainland Aboriginals.

The Thomsons were given 199 acres (80.5ha) on the island, including two town allotments. Their 81-acre (33ha) inland farm stretched from Serpentine Lake, through to the salt works, to somewhere above Oliver Hill Fort, then north of Baghdad Lake. The foundations of the homestead and a freshwater well are still intact.

Mr Thomson stayed on Rottnest for eight years until, ironically, it become a jail for Aboriginal prisoners.

The fruits of Mrs Wyatt's research will be on display in the island's museum during Heritage Week in April.