Established in 1830 as a timber station, Port Arthur was a secondary penal colony. By “secondary” it meant that the prisoners were repeat offenders. The men and women who ended up at Port Arthur were those who had committed crimes after they had arrived in the colonies; The worst of the worst were sent here and the site was chosen for its remote and inhospitable location. Making escape impossible for the unlucky convicts who were imprisoned here was a priority at the time. Escape was almost impossible, with a line of vicious dogs guarding the only way out, a 100-metre-wide strip of sand at Eaglehawk Neck.
It’s one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions, but the story behind the Port Arthur Historic Site is anything but easily digested, It’s been more than 140 years since the Port Arthur penal colony shut after 44 years of brutal slavery and punishment of the ‘worst of the worst’ sent from the motherland, some as young as 9 years old. Most were hardened criminals, others insane or you could say just unlucky. Some made it out. Hundreds did not.
There is so much already documented about Port Arthur that we will not give you another history lesson here. However we will give you 5 interesting facts to ponder.
1. The convicts built their own prison walls.
Really ….. No thanks.
It’s hard to imagine that they would really care about leaving a few bricks loose!
The initial industrial penal settlement was built of timber from the surrounding forest and was home to key factories, such as ship building, shoemaking, smithing, and timber and brick making. But by the 1840s, Port Arthur was home to more than 2000 convicts, soldiers, and free officers (and their families), and by 1848 the first stone was laid by the prisoners for the separate prison, which stands as a central attraction today.
This is the most photographed building on the historic site. The new Penitentiary as it was known had 136 separate cells on the bottom two floors for those whom one Commandant called ‘the lions’ – ‘prisoners of bad character under heavy sentence’. They had to be separated from each other and from the better-behaved.
The convicts ate and slept here but worked around the site and across the peninsula. Above the cells was a dining hall (which doubled as a school room at night), the prisoners’ library of ‘useful and entertaining books’ and a Catholic chapel. On the top floor was a dormitory for 348 better-behaved men.
2. An ambitious experiment….. but did it work?
Believe it or not, despite all of the cruelties that went on at Port Arthur, the Governor was trialling an ambitious experiment around the philosophy that prisoners could reform while still being punished.
The authorities’ aim was to offer its prisoners the opportunity to turn themselves into useful citizens of the future by building a system on punishment and discipline, classification and separation, religious and moral instruction, trade training, and education. In combination, they were to provide the convict with opportunities to turn himself into a useful future citizen. We can actually say that Port Arthur was Australia’s first TAFE.
There were many benefits for learning a trade, apart from the obvious one in improving ones life. Convicts that were good at their trade also received privileges like tea and sugar, and some skilled prisoners were even rewarded for good work with a ration of rum.
However for those who did not tow the line. Harsh punishment in the form of solitary confinement was issued. Now we were lead to believe in school that these prisoners were kept in the dark for 23 hours a day. But in fact they worked in their solitary confinement quarters for 23 hours a day with one hours exercise. But they were not to utter a word or make a sound. They were kept in a state of silence. This represented a move away from physical punishment to a focus on psychological punishment.
3. Convict tattoos… more than just for decoration.
It’s nice to know some things are woven through history. Go back 180 years, and even convicts had a thing for tattoos. And just like today, they were for many and varied reasons. From purely decorative, to a tribute to a loved one, and even a reminder of a trial date, or in fact when their sentence would be complete.
While some of the most common tattoos were that of a woman, a cross or crucifixion, a heart with the initials of a loved one, a man, and a mermaid – the most popular was that of an anchor, which was a symbol for hope.
How do we know about these tattoos? The government of the day were very precise in their record keeping. Identifying a prisoner was of importance so detailed descriptions were made.
4. Drawing the short-straw… the life of a soldier
There was no glory in guarding convicts. Speak to most soldiers and they say they train for battle to defend their country and that of their allies.
So imagine being called up for duty when there is not only no chance for any of that, you’re across the other side of the world in a place called Van Diemen’s Land. Most regiments posted at Port Arthur regarded it as a low point in their history. Their main job was obviously security, watching over the convicts working in the bush or building boats, and of course chasing after escapees.
With their accommodation next to the Commandant’s house, it wasn’t all bad news. Senior offices and their families apparently had busy social lives and enjoyed dinner parties!
5. The care of the older and infirmed
Most convicts lived a life of heavy labour, and for those already skilled they would be put to work in their trade. But for those men who were too weak for the heavy lifting, you’d find them in the gardens or performing light duties at Garden Point.
During the 1860s Port Arthur entered what is becoming known as its ‘Welfare Phase’. This period saw the construction of the Pauper’s Depot in the Hospital (1863-64) and the Asylum (1864-68). The result of an ageing and increasingly infirm prisoner population, these were the centres of Port Arthur’s somewhat benevolent leanings. Another result of the ageing prisoners was that the profitable convict-driven industries like timber-getting and agriculture took a downturn.
In keeping with the era, treatment for the patients, many suffering from depression or mental disability, was rudimentary at best. Convict patients were provided with a ‘soothing’ atmosphere, where they were allowed exercise and mild amusement. Work, though limited, was mainly tending the gardens, or chopping firewood.
The NRMA caravan park where we stayed is the location of the convict gardens where they once flourished. Convicts walked the 50 minute return trip each day after attending to the vegetable gardens, which feed the 2000 occupants of the site.
Port Arthur Historic Site is one of the those few attractions where even when going in with high expectations, it still managed to excel. This is a historical site of untold disappear. As you run your fingers slowly across the hand-made clay brick remains of once imposing structures built on the blood, sweat and tears of convicts at the notorious Port Arthur Historic Site, you feel an energy, a deep melancholy and unexplained sadness.
The unease contradicts the view about you. The day is warm and peaceful with the leaves of broad ancient oaks and gum trees chattering in the breeze. Bumble bees hover over colourful flowerbeds and cherry and apple trees are bursting with fruit.
You can’t feel good walking about this monument with its horrific past that was enforced upon this land. A history that tried to be forgotten by so many even changing the towns name to Carnarvon to wash away the past. But nothing could erase the past, not even the bush fires that ravaged it. It has succeeded regardless. What has triumphed though is the stories of individuals who served their time, reformed, escaped or died. They left a history that we should never forget.
We have been to Tasmania on many occasions, but we have been unable to visit the Port Arthur site. It is 26 years since the Port Arthur “Massacre”, (how we hate that word). 26 years ago 35 innocent people lost their lives, and 23 others wondered, families were destroyed and dreams were never fulfilled. Kate Scott was one of those vibrant young lives, never will she grow old and never will she nor any of others be forgotten. We were finally able to pay our respects to Kate and those taken from us on that fateful day.
Your entry fee includes a 2-consecutive day pass, a free introductory tour and a free harbour cruise. Make sure you don’t miss the tours.
We would also recommend booking extra tours if you’re budget allows. We added in the Commandants Tour & Isle of the Dead Tour. The tour guides are all excellent – natural, passionate and knowledgeable.
If you want to visit all the buildings at the Site, take in the museum and do all of the tours., you will need more than one day. We managed to have an action packed day from 8am till the close of the iron gates, but we were on a march.
Discover more about Port Arthur and Tasmania at www.discovertasmania.com.au
Following is a pictorial of our visit to Port Arthur. Some have been photographed in sepia. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.
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