04 December 2013

Port Arthur

Penitentiary (1857) - originally constructed as a flour mill
One of the highlights of my week in Tasmania was of course the day I spent at the world heritage site at the tip of the Tasman peninsula, the Port Arthur convict settlement. This far-flung prison camp was designed to house the most recidivist and violent criminals sent to the Australian colonies, and from its foundation as a penal station in 1830 until it was finally closed in 1877 Port Arthur was both a watchword for the harshest forms of imprisonment available at the time, and a notorious threat held over the heads of convicts elsewhere - toe the line or else you'll get sent to the worst corner of Van Diemen's Land. 

In Matthew Kneale's award-winning and highly recommended novel of 19th century Tasmania, English Passengers, the rather dastardly character Jack Harp finds himself sent as one of the first convicts to the newly-established Port Arthur penal station. After much back-breaking labour to set up the camp and hack miles of timber from the forest to supply the colony and the ship-building trade, he describes the growing settlement:

Port Arthur was getting older too. Convicts by the hundred there were now, with more buggers coming all the while, and from just a few huts by the shore it was grown into quite a Manchester, with work sheds turning out every kind of article, from boots to lamp-posts. There was a dock where ships were made, and strong guarded, too, while away to northwards was a little coal mine with cells underground, that was said to be such a delight that even the Macquarie Harbour boys tried to keep away. If for some reason a fellow tired of all this joy and decided to take a little walk alone into the bush, there was a fine new semaphore on the hill behind the commander's house, so that in just a few moments all Van Diemen's Land might know of his strolling. If our fellow was caught - and he generally would be - and was left weary from his adventures, or had caught a bullet in his gut, there was a little railway to carry him back, with carriages pulled not by steam engines but convicts, these being more plentiful. Why, if his excursion proved too exciting for his nerves we even had an island of the dead for the poor bleeder, where he could be buried in a good Port Arthur coffin, that he might have worked on himself. 
- Matthew Kneale, English Passengers, 2000, p.185-6. 
To the modern visitor, Port Arthur is an intriguing and strangely beautiful settlement at the far edge of the world. But reminders of the grim past of Van Diemen's Land are never far from sight. Naturally, the impressive stone edifices of the settlement, including the towering four-storey penitentiary building and the remains of the church atop the hill, were all built with convict slave labour. Life for the convicts at Port Arthur was brutal and there was only a distant hope of deliverance back into mainstream society. Perhaps a ticket of leave would be granted eventually, but the lengthy sentences of those who ended up imprisoned on the Tasman Peninsula - often for multiple offences and recidivism - meant that many had little hope of rejoining colonial life outside the penal station. Indeed, some chose the easy way out - attempted murder of a guard or fellow convict could result in a one-way trip to the swift release of the hangman's noose.

Escape from Port Arthur was well-nigh impossible.  The geography of the Tasman Peninsula meant that all escapees travelling by land would have to pass the Eaglehawk Neck, the narrow isthmus where the infamous 'dog line' of half-staved hounds awaited. The sea surrounding the peninsula was icy cold and treacherous; indeed, one of the few escape attempts to succeed (at least temporarily) was when some convicts stole one of the whaleboats being constructed in the boatyard and then pretended to be part of the search party sent to recapture themselves. (They were eventually caught on the Australian mainland when they were unluckily recognised by a former Port Arthur guard). The famous convict and bushranger Martin Cash did manage to escape Port Arthur in 1842 by swimming the Neck, but he was captured in Hobart in 1843.

Braving the Tasmanian rain, I explored the penal station on foot using the official audio guide, which is a good source for period quotes and background. I also took in the 20-minute boat ride in the harbour that's included as part of your entry ticket. It's a useful way to get your bearings, and get a closer look at two nearby islands. The smaller, the Isle of the Dead, is unsurprisingly the Port Arthur graveyard. The larger, Point Puer, was the site of the Point Puer Boys' Prison from 1834 to 1849, which was the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory in the British Empire. Life on the Point was grim, with the school situated on an exposed and narrow island that bore the brunt of the wild weather, and the intention to keep the boys separated from the 'evil influences' of the Port Arthur convicts was never practical.

Ruins of the hospital (1842)
The worst side of Port Arthur was the Separate Prison, influenced by voguish theories insisting that jails should punish (and if possible, reform) the prisoners' minds instead of their bodies. Opened in 1849, the Separate Prison incarcerated inmates in tiny solitary confinement cells, and absolutely no communication was permitted between any prisoners. Whenever they were allowed out of their cells - one hour per day only - prisoners were forced to wear anonymising full-face masks and were referred to by prisoner number rather than their name. In the frequent church services in the chapel, each man was forced to stand in a tiny separate wooden cubicle that restricted their view so they could only see the pulpit. I visited such a chapel in Lincoln Castle prison in 2008 and was struck by the cruelty of the whole scheme, but also of the finicky malice in the tiny details: in the Lincoln chapel each narrow wooden cubicle had a small bench for the prisoner, but it was angled 45 degrees downwards so they couldn't rest by sitting properly. It's no surprise that many of the men sent to Separate Prisons ended up going mad thanks to the pitiless regime they were incarcerated under.
Separate Prison cell (1849)
Separate Prison chapel
Despite the persistent Vandemonian rain, I relished the opportunity to explore Port Arthur, which is a hugely evocative slice of Australian history, and to hear some of the stories of those incarcerated therein. Each visitor to Port Arthur is given a marked playing card, and a particular convict's story is revealed as you explore the museum at the entrance. Mine was a 33-year-old groom from Cheshire, transported for horse theft and send to Port Arthur for further stealing once in Australia. After a failed escape attempt from a timber gang he was given 75 lashes. Vowing revenge, he tried to stove a guard's head in with an axe in a sneak attack. Soon after he was tried in Hobart and executed. Hardly a happy ending.

Aside from the heritage aspects, another thing I admired about Port Arthur was the sensitive way it commemorates the calamitous mass murder that occurred there in April 1996, when a rogue gunman killed 35 and wounded others. The gunman's name is mentioned nowhere at Port Arthur, and a peaceful memorial pool reflects the ruined walls of the former tea kiosk that burned down in the rampage. The one small saving grace that arose from the crime was that thanks to the gun reforms that were implemented in Australia in response to the massacre, there have been no similar mass shootings in Australia since that day in April 1996, and indeed former Australian Prime Minister John Howard cites this as one of his proudest achievements in office.

Finally, here's a brief two-part video taken during a gap in the drizzle:

See also:
Blog: Hobart, 27 November 2013
Blog: Rottnest Island wildlife, 21 November 2012
Book: For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke, 1874 
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