The first documented Go game on Rottnest Island and why does it matter?

On Easter Sunday, 1 April 2018, the very first known Go game was played on Rottnest Island, 20 km off the Western Australian coast near the old port town of Fremantle. You may wonder why this matter, and here is why.

Rottnest Island – Wadjemup – is a protected natural reserve, a very popular place for hiking, surfing, cycling and exploring in a casual, relaxed and picturesque scenery.  Described as “the West Australian own island gateway” and “the home of quokkas” Rottnest Island with its stunning beaches offers simple pleasures and a special holiday experience.

The island is probably best known for its adorable furry inhabitants, the quokkas, which make the perfect “selfie” companion. Since the Dutch settlers referred to the small marsupials as “giant bush rats” [rott (Dutch) – rat] the Island was named “Rottnest” or the “Rats’ nest”[1]

Photo: Silvia Lozeva

The word “quokka” itself derives from the Nyungar language to describe the small furry marsupials, only found in this island. The Wadjuk people of the Nyungar nation are the Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of the land where Perth and Fremantle are situated.

The game of Go

The game of Go is the oldest game that humans have continued to play over 4,000 years.  Originating in China, its spread well over Asia and it is the most popular board game in the world. Despite being little known in the West, it is gaining increasing popularity due to its simple rules, elegant style, and ultimate mental challenge. There are still a lot of lessons to be learnt from the simple grid of 19×19 and black and white stones that constitute the Go game. The word Go itself derives from the Japanese word Igo, however in China it is known as WeiQi and in Korea as Baduk. Since the principles in Go mirror real life social interactions, and have been serving to develop one’s ability to understand the world, some of the lessons from the art of Go can be easily applied even to modern-day life. Here is how they could apply in the context of Rottnest Island:

  • Respect: for your opponent and for the game = Respect for other cultures and for the environment

In the ethics of Go, respect plays a central role. The respect to your opponent, seen also as your best teacher, and for the game itself is built in within centuries of traditions. Nowhere else modelling respectful relationships and valuing others’ perspectives and knowledges is more evident that the board of Go. This is manifested by politeness, collaboration, willing to help and share knowledges and deep respect until the end of the game for one’s opponent.

This lesson could be easily translated as respect for other cultures and respect for the environment.

The Aboriginal people have inhabited this land for over 55,000 years, which makes them the oldest living human culture. Modelling respectful relationships, acknowledging the Nyungar names of the Island – Wadjemup, paying respect to Elders – past, present and future – and willingness to learn from their custody of the environment over thousands of years is the first sign of respect and step towards reconciliation.

  • Inclusivity: all stones are valued equally =All humans have equal rights.

In Go, the fundamental principle is that all stones, black or white, have equal value. In modern day, this simple observation can be translated to human rights relating to all humans being equally, despite of race, gender, age, cultural background and other difference.

  • Fairness:

All Go games start with an equal number of stones and the players only rely on their own skills, knowledge and abilities to place them. There is a “handicap system” in place, which purpose is to even- up levels of two players from different ranks by giving extra stones at the start of the game. The basic rules of the games have not changes for thousands of years, although some modifications have been made to accommodate modern style competitive games. The Go game is based on respect, inclusivity and fairness.

While Rottnest Island is a popular tourist destination, for Aboriginal people of this land the island has very different history, because of imprisonment, forced labour and death. This dark history is still hidden for most of the tourists on the island.

The Indigenous people faced a legal system which they did not have means to comprehend. They have had governance structures for thousands and thousands of years before the white people introduced their laws after arriving in 1829. For Aboriginal people animals belonged to the land, not to the people, so they started taking down some animals when all the access to fresh waters supplies and hunting ground was blocked by the settlers.  Nyungar people were punished hard for this and imprisoned for theft and trespassing by being imprisoned on the land and later sent to the island in 1938. Initially they could have some freedom and even hunt in parts of the days, however a few months later, with the arrival of Henry Vincent as a superintendent, they were made to work on the limestones mines at day so that the prison could be built, were chained at night at jammed cells. No wonder this place was described as “a hell on Earth”.

  • Continuous self-improvement.

Go is the ultimate challenge for humans’ life-long learning. It can be translated as a life-long adapting to the environment and global challenges.

Nowadays, Rottnest Island is a popular destination not only for West Australians, but also for national and international visitors. The Rottnest Ferry has already responded to the notable changes of demographics by including Chinese (Mandarin) and Japanese language options on its website to appeal to international visitors.

With the increase of the number of tourists from China, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, the local Rottnest Authorities could also benefit from marketing the island as a place of simple pleasures, which includes enjoying the traditional tranquil game of Go.

The history and transformation of the island in responding to the dark past by acknowledging and by designating the burial sites must continue by rethinking the purpose of the Quad building. The Quad, which was used as a prison, is now an up-market accommodation site, called the Rottnest lodge.

Looking forward, there are also global challenges to which Rottnest Island could benefit from respond to, most notably the demographic changes of visitors, the composition of the Australian population and the increasing number of people from diverse background. The island could benefit from adequate inclusive policies, which proactively model multicultural activities. Could it be that Go, the oldest game is human civilisation be one of them?

There are still a lot of lessons to be learnt about respecting the culture of the local place by honouring the Aboriginal heritage, while making the island a desired tourist destination.  

Reference: Rottnest Island Authority

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Rottnest Island: Black prison to white background

[1] Rott – derived from Dutch, meaning a rat.  Hence the “Rottnest” literally means “Rats’ nest”.