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.