Lacepede Islands

The remote north-west of the continent to the Kimberley Region is one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. It's an almost pristine environment that supports a whole range of plants and animals, especially birds. Lonely and deserted today, it is hard to imagine how these tiny atolls could have played such a pivotal and dramatic role in the development of the North-West. The islands are also infamous as a place where Aboriginal people were held against their will before they were dragooned into working as pearl divers and processors.

Sometimes referred to simply as the Lacepedes, the four islands are located in the Indian Ocean off the north-west coast of Western Australia, about 120 kilometres north of Broome. They are about 30 kilometres off the coast of the Dampier Peninsula, from which they are separated by the Lacepede Channel.

The four islands are named West Island, Middle Island, East Island and Sandy Island. They are all small, low spits of coarse sand and coral rubble, lying atop a platform reef. The islands are Western Australia's most important breeding grounds for the Green Turtle, and they also support of breeding colonies of Lesser Frigate Birds, Brown Boobies, Crested Terns, Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones.

In the 19th century, the Lacepede Islands were amongst numerous islands off the Western Australian coast that were mined for guano. Although much of the guano mined was by Western Australia industry, there was also extensive unauthorised mining by trading ships from other countries, especially the United States. A Melbourne company, Messrs. Poole, Picken and Co., had been authorised by the Western Australian government to load guano, and had been charged a royalty of 10 shillings per ton.

In 1876, a dispute arose when an American named Gilbert Roberts landed from the French barque Forca de la Roquette and disputed a demand that he play a levy for mining there. He planted the United States flag on one of the islands, claiming the island group for that country in accordance with a U.S. law that empowered U.S. citizens to take possession of uninhabited islands more than a league (three miles) offshore from any country, so long as they had not been formally claimed. This incident, known as the "American Incident" or "Lacepede Islands Incident", sparked a diplomatic and political row, which was eventually resolved by Roberts paying the levy and a fine, and the Western Australian government enacting legislation requiring all guano mining to be licensed, with severe penalties for transgressions.

The Lacepede Islands are also known to have been used by blackbirders, as a place to maroon kidnapped Indigenous Australians before signing them up to work in various industries, such as the pearling industry. One confirmed case is that of early Cossack settler Edward Chapman, who was cautioned for kidnapping Indigenous Australians from Beagle Bay and marooning them in the Lacepedes.

The Lacepede Islands are now managed by the Department of Environment and Conservation as the A-class Lacepede Islands Nature Reserve. One notable management activity is the apparently successful eradication of the black rat from the islands, allowing the regeneration of populations of ground-breeding birds. East Island is the location of the East Island Lighthouse.

The Lacepede Islands and Lacepede Channel which separates them from the mainland, were named on 5th August 1801 by French explorer Nicolas Baudin, who was surveying the coast in the ships Naturaliste and Geographe. They were named after Bernard Germaine Etienne de la Ville, Comte de Lacepede (1756-1825), President of the French senate. Lacepede was also a naturalist who described many of Australia's fish species between 1798 and 1804, mostly during the time of Baudin's expedition.

After the rise of Napoleon, he turned his attention excluseively to politics. He was elected to the French senate in 1799 and became President of that body in 1801, receiving the Legion of Honour in 1803. Lacepede was largely responsible for gaining government approval for Baudin's expedition. His nephew, Bernard de Lacepede, was an expedition naturalist with the frigate Geographe, and contributed numerous illustrations of flora and fauna. Baudin also named a bay in South Australia after Lacepede Senior.


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The Nullar

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