The Australian History Lesson

The sprawling Penitentiary site at Port Arthur has more than 30 buildings–but no high walls. There was no escaping the peninsula.

It was a dreary windy day when we toured the Port Arthur penitentiary site in Southern Tasmania last Thursday. We were told the weather was unusual for summer here, but it seemed somehow fitting when visiting a site of such misery.

Australia, as some know, was founded as a penal colony. Unlike the United States, the first people to come here were not colonists or people fleeing oppression in Britain. They were people bringing oppression from Britain, in the person of 160,000 prisoners shipped here between 1788 and 1868 in order to make the Pacific Ocean, in Robert Hughes's words, “a wall 14,000 miles thick” between England and its troublesome citizens who received a sentence of transportation to Australia. (To be accurate, I should probably mention here that England sent 60,000 prisoners to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but that option was cut off to them by the American Revolution.)

It was a bit surprising to read prisoner records for many of those sent to Port Arthur, and not just because there were at least nine prisoners there who had the surnames of my Irish ancestors. Port Arthur is at the end of a remote peninsula in Southern Tasmania, about an hour and a half's drive from Hobart. The vast prison complex there came to be the most notorious of the Australian prison installations, due to its size and to the fact that a surprising number of men sent there went insane due to the unusually cruel treatment they received.

But of course, the assiduous records of the lashes men received, or the meager rations they had to eat, were not unexpected. Nor were the accounts of the terrible afflictions of those who worked as “underdogs” in the sawmills (blindness and emphysema) or those who were tossed into solitary confinement until they went insane.

The restored chapel is part of the restored “Separate Prison” at Port Arthur. Even at mandatory chapel the men were put into cubicles one at a time so they could not glimpse each other even then.

Nor were the ruins of stone cold cells that were too short for a man over five foot seven inches tall to stand in, or the thick chains many wore constantly. (Better behaved prisoners got lighter, or no, chains.) Even the “Separate Prison,” which was a block of cells where men were kept in solitary confinement, often in the dark, and were not permitted to see any human other than the chaplain for months at a time, were expected. (The Separate Prison has recently been restored, at a cost of over five million dollars, so you can see in detail the insidious methodology which was used to “grind men good”. What actually happened, often, was that they ended up in the Lunatic Asylum, which conveniently was located right next door.)

A guard tower at Port Arthur.

What was remarkable is what got you sent here. When you come into the Port Arthur site, you're given a playing card that corresponds to a particular inmate. My deuce of clubs corresponded to a boy of 14 who had been sentenced to seven years incarceration and transportation to Australia for stealing a handkerchief. Many other records that are on view throughout the site list similar trifling offenses that describe desperate poverty much more than criminal tendencies.

We've now seen three penal colony sites: the Women's Factory in Hobart, Port Arthur, and Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour near Strahan. For a long time, Australia let the sites go derelict as if to deny its history. And, to be truthful, there were many more immigrants to Australia due to the gold rush than were brought here as prisoners. To also fill out the story, those “free” Australians eventually got transportation halted–although not for altruistic motives. They didn't want “criminals” in their midst any more than the English did, and, more important, it was very hard for free men who were earning and paying wages to compete with the enterprises who took advantage of the slave labor provided by the penal colonies.

But, in the last twenty five years or so, the Australians have realized that the penal sites are valuable to them as tourist attractions. And so, restoration, especially at Port Arthur, has progressed nicely. The Port Arthur site and the Cascades Female Factory are both listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. Sarah Island is within the Tasmanian Wilderness Unesco Site.

The ruins at Sarah Island are worth the tour, too. (They're only reached by boat, and it's $99, but I'll write more about that another day.) Don't bother with paying for the tour at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart. There is almost nothing left there to see, and you're much better off saving the $15 fee to buy more beer at the Cascade Brewery tour just a couple hundred meters up the street.

The day after tomorrow, January 26, is Australia Day. That date in 1788 was the day the first ships carrying just over 700 prisoners landed in what is now Sydney Harbour. We'll be here for that. I'm anxious to see how much history is acknowledged as the beer flows.

The Australian convict sites are a Unesco World Heritage site in Australia. Click the link to see a list of all the Australian Unesco World Heritage sites, with links to posts about the ones we've visited.

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3 thoughts on “The Australian History Lesson”

  1. Yeah but we had the last laugh, better climate, better cricket team, better beer, better beaches.
    So what if we have to stop off in exotic asia for a night or two to make the trip back to the old dart.
    Prison can be nice place if you have the right view, seafood, wine, cultural diversity and lightness all around.


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