Barrow Island has a special place in Australia's history, geography and social development. The island was first visited by survivors of the wreck of the British trading ship Trial in May 1622, which had come to grief on rocks in the vicinity of the Montebello islands nearby. The failed to find water on Barrow Island and headed north to Java in a long boat.
The next recorded visitors to Barrow Island were members of the French exploratory expedition headed by Nicholas Baudin in March 1803, but historians say he mistakenly believed it was part of mainland Australia. Several names given by the Baudin expedition survive on Barrow Island today.
It was left to the Royal Navy's Lieutenant Philip Parker King to name the island in June 1818 during an exploration voyage. He called it Barrow's Island after John Barrow, a Secretary of the Admirality and founder of the Royal Geographical Society, who was a great promoter of exploration.
European whalers were possibly in the locality from about 1800, but the first recorded visit dates to June 1842, with records of further visits up to 1864. This business appears to have been operated in conjunction with the pearling industry. In the early 1870's Captain Francis Cadell established a slave market for both male and female Aboriginal people on the island and Demambre and Endeby Islands. Reports of his activities were being noted by at least 1874 and orders for his apprehension were made, resulting in his arrest in Shark Bay in 1876 and his departure from the colony. Relics from the historic pearling camp on Bandicoot Bay have been found. It is believed a trepang or sea cucumber fishery operated from the same site in the 1920s.
A turtle shell industry was active on Barrow and Delambre islands by 1871/72. Pastoral, turtle shell, general fishing and fish oil leases were granted in 1873. One leasee, F. McRae & Co, signed for twenty two Aboriginal men in 1880 who were later marooned on the island by a pearler who was fined for his action. Although no record of the numbers of people involved or the existence of land based camps is available the phosphate mining industry probably existed by 1883, when a ship visited intending to pick up a load.
The original pastoral lease for the island was applied for in 1873 by F. McRae & Co of Cossack and Roebourne. There may have been as many as 600 sheep on the island by 1882. The last known pastoral lease was forfeited in 1907.
In September 1884 the island was made a quarantine station for mainland Aboriginals during a measles epidemic. This probably involved catered for people engaged in the pearling industry and apart from records of a hospital ship, there is no mention of any structures built on the island. There was a Lock Hospital there in 1908, which may have been for venereal disease. This was had been abandoned in favour of Bernier and Dorre Islands by 1909.