If you go to Tasmania, you must go to Port Arthur.
Of course, thousands of people who went to Tasmania in the mid-19th century also had to go to Port Arthur. They had no choice. They were transported from elsewhere in the British Empire and dumped in the remote penal colony to serve their time, usually for secondary offenses (offenses committed after they already had been sentenced for crimes).
Port Arthur sits on the south side of the Tasman Peninsula, about an hour from the capital city of Hobart. These days, the environs are sleepy farming and fishing hamlets. But back in 1830, when Port Arthur came into being, the landscape was rugged, dense, nearly impenetrable rainforest edged by cliffs.
To get to Port Arthur via land, you had to cross an isthmus about 30 meters (100 feet) wide. Called Eaglehawk Neck, the isthmus was protected by The Line. A series of massive and aggressive guard dogs were chained to posts along the width of the Neck, with other dogs positioned on rafts in the shallow waters on either side of the narrow stretch of land. It was rumored that the deeper waters had a different kind of barrier: sharks. I didn’t read any accounts of shark attacks, but I’m guessing the mere notion of shark-infested waters was enough to deter most would-be escapees.
If any escapees made it through the dense, jungle-like forests and past the dogs and/or sharks, they were promptly shot by guards stationed on a ridge of land looking down on The Line.
Perhaps not surprisingly, escape attempts from Port Arthur were not as numerous as from other sites.
When you visit Port Arthur, you’re given a card with a man’s name on it, and throughout the site you can find out what happened to him. My convict, as I like to think of him, was Abraham Hood, a baker by trade–coincidence? The young Mr. Hood, hailing from Dalkeith, outside Edinburgh, Scotland, was just 20 when he was convicted in 1819 of stealing a horse. He was sentenced to 14 years transportation, which means he had to serve his sentence in Australia.
Mr. Hood, like many bakers, ahem, was not one to keep his head down and do what he was told. According to records, he was sentenced to 75 lashes after writing a letter to the Commandant listing the ways in which Port Arthur was poorly run. After continuing to be a rabble-rouser, he was sentenced to three months on the chain gang, the most dangerous and grueling of jobs. Men chained together at the ankle had to fell enormous trees and drag them to the timber mills. Crushing deaths and injuries were numerous.
Although the convicts were isolated from the rest of the world, their keepers seemed to stay up to date on all the latest innovations in punishment. After kicking things off with the usual emphasis on physical punishment, prison officials shifted towards the “new” notion of breaking a man’s spirit.
The Separate Prison, also known as the Modern Prison, was built in 1853. It emphasized psychological punishment by restricting prisoners to small, solitary cells most of the day, briefly letting them out to exercise alone in tiny yards.
While in their cells, the men could not be idle and worked at a number of trades, including making shoes. Speaking of shoes, guards who patrolled the corridors of the Separate Prison didn’t wear any. They wore soft slippers so that convicts could not hear them, part of the prison’s sound deprivation, er, enhancement.
Perhaps not surprisingly, tossing a man in the Separate Prison, used as a punishment when he misbehaved in the general population, generally did not have the desired effect of rehabilitating him. Many men, when their time in the Separate Prison was done, were physically ill and mentally shattered. It’s no coincidence, noted our guide, that the Separate Prison is next to the asylum, which is next to the poorhouse where convicts who had done their time but were too mentally and physically broken to return to society, lived out their days.
But wait, not everything was awful at Port Arthur. For one thing, a lot of men learned trades, including ship building and masonry. Many of them served their sentences and then settled in Tasmania and became respectable members of society.
Others didn’t get the chance.
If you go to Port Arthur today as a tourist, you get a lot more choices than the convicts did. There are different levels of visitor’s passes plus add-ons such as the nighttime ghost tour and a day tour that includes lunch. I went for the basic tour, but also bought a side trip to the Isle of the Dead.
No one is sure how many people are buried on the Isle of the Dead, Port Arthur’s cemetery, but it’s estimated to be in the neighborhood of 1500. Fewer than 200 ended up in marked graves, however, and most of them were prison officials, their wives and children.
The headstones themselves were carved by convicts learning a trade, including, apparently, a few of the boys incarcerated at Point Puer. Boys as young as nine were shipped off to Point Puer, the first boys’ prison in the British Empire.
The only way to see the Isle of the Dead is on a guided tour leaving from the harbor ferry (the ferry trip itself is included in the basic ticket price). Our guide, a woman with streaked red and fucshia hair who was well into her 60s (or, given the Australian sun, maybe she was 40. Hard to tell.), had a rather dour style. At first I thought jeez, lady, crack a smile or something. Then I felt the cumulative effect of her delivery. After stopping at a headstone and reciting the half dozen or so lines she’d memorized, she intoned “To the memory of Caroline Aylett” or whomever she was discussing.
Over the half hour or so of the tour, her solemn words had the effect of taking us back to a time when Port Arthur was a living, breathing city full of individuals, not just names on cards.
Transportation, the practice of shipping convicts off to Australia, ended in the 1850s. Port Arthur began a slow decline. It closed in 1877. Its buildings were ravaged by fires in the 1890s. After much looting and decay, the site’s historic value was recognized as something that ought to be protected. Eventually named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Port Arthur is now Tasmania’s largest tourist attraction and considered one of the most important Australian convict history locations.
Unfortunately, Port Arthur’s misery did not end when the last convict left.
In 1996, a Hobart area man armed with automatic rifles and more than a few grudges arrived at Port Arthur. He opened fire on tourists, guides and workers indiscriminately, killing more than 30 and wounding another 21, some of them seriously. Many were killed at the Broad Arrow Cafe, which was gutted by fire shortly thereafter and made into a memorial. The gunman was eventually captured. He was judge to be sane and sentenced to 35 consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole. In reaction to the massacre, Tasmania and Australia revamped their gun laws, making them some of the strictest in the world.
To the memory of Port Arthur, and all who lived and died there.