Islands of the dead: Inscribing personal narrative and memory within the documentary representation of burial islands

Ms Emma Sheppard-Simms1

1University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia


From the 19th Century onwards, many Australian islands were employed as places of institutional incarceration, including prisons, asylums, Indigenous reserves, internment camps and quarantine stations. The people who were imprisoned on these islands were subjected to spatial isolation and ‘social death’; a state characterised by a loss of agency and connections to broader society. Physical death was also common, and burial grounds were established on many islands to contain the bodies of those who had been exiled to the farthest margins of society. With the exception of Australia’s continued practice of asylum-seeker detention, many of these island institutions have long since closed; their ruins and burial grounds the only visible evidence of their former use. Such sites might be called ‘burial islands’; places where the traces of violence and social death are physically inscribed upon the landscape, but remain largely invisible within broader contexts of Australian history. Within this presentation, I explore the multiple and shifting landscapes of the burial island as found within two documentary films. Specifically, I discuss how personal narratives have been reinscribed into the representation of the island landscape, thereby shifting its social meaning from a former site of exile, to a site of potential political transformation.


Emma Sheppard-Simms is a PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania.  Her research interests include the geographies of exclusion and issues of environmental justice. Her PhD involves an investigation of island burial grounds as landscapes of absence and memory.


The Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) is the principal body representing geographers and promoting the study and application of geography in Australia. It was founded in 1958 and since then has promoted, supported and defended Australian geography.

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