In about 1815, when James Kelly sailed through Hell’s Gates to be the first European to visit Macquarie Harbour, he named Sarah Island after Sarah Birch, the wife of the merchant who had paid for the voyage.
Sarah Island was established in the remote reaches of Macquarie Harbour in 1821. From 1822 to 1833, Sarah Island was the home of a harsh convict settlement. It is Tasmania’s oldest convict settlement and reputedly one of the severest penal establishments in the history of transportation to Australia.
Once a thickly wooded outcrop in Macquarie Harbour lashed by the Roaring Forties, it was selected as a place of ‘banishment and security’ because of its isolation. It was a bleak place reserved for the worst of British felons. Sarah Island has a notorious past. Flogging and hanging was frequently used as a punishment and more than 180 escape attempts were made. Convicts laboured under the harshest conditions in the rainforest, felling Huon pines for boat building.
Remotely located, the island sits in the southern part of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast. Of all the possible sites to choose, Macquarie Harbour would have been the most windswept and barren but it was also the most secure.
Any convict trying to escape Sarah Island had not only to get across the harbour but to hack their way through the impenetrable rainforests of the west coast …… to where exactly. Despite its isolation and grim function, Sarah Island was for a time the largest shipbuilding yard in the colonies.
With the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830, the use of Sarah Island was phased out. It operated for a year as a convict probation station when it housed a party of convicts sent to cut Huon pine. Economic and ‘moral’ problems forced its closure.
Towards the end of the 19th century the haunting ruins and natural beauty of Sarah Island became popular with tourists. The island was gazetted as a tourist reserve in 1926 and nearly 50 years later is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Macquarie Harbour Historic Site. Today, the convict ruins give a chilling insight into the cruelties of convict life and are especially unsettling given the overwhelming beauty of the surrounding wilderness.
A walking track links important sites. The best way to visit the site is on one of the several wilderness cruises operating out of Strahan. We chose the family owner and operated World Heritage Cruisers (red boat).
They took us on a journey following in the footsteps of the convicts from their passage through Hells Gates the narrow entrance to Macquarie Harbour named by the convicts on their way to Sarah Island to their daily life on the island; Entering the harbour through Hell’s Gates meant navigating waters so treacherous that many lost their lives here. For them it may have been their salvation because what awaited those who did make it was much, much worse than death. Conditions at the penal settlement on Sarah Island in the southern part of the harbour were so harsh that one convict, only known as Trenham, went as far as stabbing a fellow inmate, reasoning that this would get him executed and he wouldn’t have to spend more time in this hell.
Going through in the modern large catamaran on a calm day was concerning enough. At just 120 meters wide and notoriously shallow this dangerous channel is the entrance a harbour twice the size of Sydney Harbour. Hell’s Gate must of been an intimidating site as ships navigated though with no propulsion other than the wind. Convicts described their arrival through the entrance as the “entrance to hell”. The dangerous conditions caused by the “Roaring 40s” would also contribute to the well deserved title, that is still used today.
Once thorough Hells Gate we cruised along Macquarie Harbour passing high-tech aquaculture where hundreds of thousands of Tasmania’s famous Atlantic Salmon and Ocean Trout are farmed;
enjoying the very interesting commentary from the Captain and experienced guest speakers about the history and goings on in the area. Once docked we stepped ashore at Sarah Island to see some of Australia’s oldest convict ruins.
A settlement which pre-dates Port Arthur by decades. Created to put the ‘fear of God’ into the convicts of Van Diemen’s Land, this tiny outpost of 18th Century British penal history hides a fascinating tale of human triumph over adversity, brought vividly to life by expert guides of the Round Earth Company.
Over time Sarah Island has gained a reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors and a living hell, largely due to the exploits of one of the island’s ‘colourful’ characters, Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict, and a novel For the Term of His Natural Life written about 1860 by Marcus Clark. The novel, although based on actual events, is a fiction which set out to create Sarah Island as a living hell for its hero, Rufus Dawes.
Altogether about 1200 men and women were sentenced or sent to Sarah Island. Most of them had committed further offences while serving their original sentences; others came as ‘remittance men’, skilled tradesmen who worked at the settlement in exchange for remission of their sentence.
They were supervised by military detachments of several regiments (up to 90 soldiers at one time), and by a variety of Civilian Officers, Supervisors and Constables, many of whom were ex-convicts. Ships’ crews were regular visitors, tradesmen were co-opted and often bribed to work at the Settlement. There were women and children: some convicts working as servants; some wives of soldiers and officials; some wives and children of convicts.
The Muster in 1828 was a total of 531, including about 380 convicts, 95 military, 14 women, some civilians and 27 children.
The early work of the Settlement was timber-cutting and hauling, work that could be done largely by unskilled gangs. But shipping out the valued Huon Pine proved more of a problem than expected: one solution was to build ships at the Settlement to transport the timber.
Soon Sarah Island was more than just a prison. It was also an industrial village: gardeners, timber cutters, sawmen, boatmen, tanners, bootmakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boat builders and shipwrights, fencers, bakers, cooks, medical orderlies, quarrymen and stonemasons, brick makers, lime-burners, coal miners, clerks, accountants, artists and draughtsmen.
Today there are a few obvious ruins. Most of the buildings were of timber construction which has been removed or rotted. Some deliberate damage many years ago by those who wanted the island’s history forgotten and the activity of souvenir collectors in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century have depleted the brick and stone structures.
Some detailed images of the Island painted by the artists who served time there (skilled draughtsmen sent for forgery). But the real task of re-construction is to create a picture of the people who lived and worked there.
And this is where the talented folk of the Round Earth Company take us on their journey. What they do is to put together a detailed picture of all these people, what they did, how they related to each other, and above all how they responded to the harsh environment and the brutal treatment meted out for at least half of the period of the Settlement. It is a fascinating tale of trials and tribulations of an island full of the unimaginable group of people forced together to live on a very small Island at the end of the world.
The Tour has been researched and prepared by Richard Davey with the assistance of Dr. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. The story told on the Guided Tour has been elaborated by Richard Davey in The Sarah Island Conspiracies, published in 2002. The tour is as much as a theatrical performance as much as guided factual tour and it is a snippet to the of this complex picture and introduces you to some of the people of Sarah Island.
To complete the story and to see the characters come to life acted out by attending the hilarious pantomime performance of “The Ship that Never Was”. This live theatrical production has been in continuous operation since 1994 every night at 5:30pm. Bookings are essential as numbers are limited in this small intimate space. We would suggest that you see the production after your tour of Sarah Island.
We hope you enjoyed our insights to a forgotten part of our convict history. there is much more to the story. But it would be remiss of us to spoil it for those who wish to discover Sarah Island for themselves. For those of you unable to make the visit there is plenty of books now available on the subject, please find a list following:
The Great Escape: start reading The Ship That Never Was by Adam Courtenay
The Sarah Island Conspiraciesby Richard Innes Davey
The Round Earth Company have a children’s comic available. https://www.roundearth.com.au/books.html
Join us next time when we take a historic train that was said could never be built.
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