In anticipation for our day in Port Arthur we’d read a few articles regarding the history of one of Australia’s most significant heritage areas as a penal colony. So we were very excited when we anchored early and we’re off on the tenders to join our tour “Historic Port Arthur”.
Port Arthur is a small town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula. It’s open air museum is one of Tasmania’s top tourist attraction. Port Arthur is located approximately 60 kilometres southeast of the state capital, Hobart. (February 17th). Port Arthur was named after Van Diemen’s (Governor-General of Dutch East India Company) Land Lieutenant Governor George Arthur. The settlement started as a timber station in 1830 but is best known as a penal colony.
From 1833 until the 1870’s it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British and Irish criminals, those who were secondary offenders having reoffended after their arrival in Australia. It had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system. Since 1987, the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, with conservation works funded by the Tasmanian Government and the admission fees paid by visitors. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO inscribed the Port Arthur Historic Site and the Coal Mines Historic site on the World Heritage Register on July 31, 2010 as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property. The area receives over 250,000 visitors each year and the government continues to put significant money in the upkeep of the site. While we were there approximately 20 ferries, each containing about 100 passengers from surrounding areas flooded to take the walking tours and see the surrounding areas.
Convicts were first transported to New South Wales by Governor Arthur Philip in January 1788. A small colony at Hobart later open as a timber station in 1830 and Governor Arthur decided
the Tasman Peninsula was an ideal place for prisoners soon afterwards.
The chilling history surrounding the penal colon and those who were incarcerate at Port Arthur between 1830 and 1877 hangs in the air. The jail’s ruins stand as ghostly reminders of the era. Prisoners were treated with brutality. Beatings were common, many prisoners were placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time, in many instances resulting in mental breakdown. The use of unbridled Mastiffs, bred for ferocity and released to maul would be escapees even when it was certain they would not get away. The history is extremely well recorded in the restored Officers’ Quarters one of the oldest wooden military buildings.
Many of the prisoners brought to Port Arthur were very young men, who offended and were sent by convict ship. These young boys were subject to much abuse by both prisoners and guards alike. In 1834, a special juvenile detention unit was established across the bay at Port Puer.
Gradually the prison populations were segregated and organized on the basis of trustworthiness, health, sanity and age. Individual cells were introduced (4 x 5ft). Conditions actually improved over time. A hospital was built and even an asylum was added to house the criminally insane. God only knows what methods were used to help (or hinder) these unfortunates.
Walking around the island is haunting, one can almost hear the cries of prisoners. The conditions must have been atrocious. Among the remaining structures are the Guard Tower and Tower cottage. The hilltop barracks are in ruin, but the foundations have been excavated and reveal some interesting historical artefacts. There is evidence of a school. The oldest building, the Penitentiary is on the waterfront. It was originally a granary and flour mill but converted to house prisoners who have been transferred from Norfolk Island. Unbelievably the source of power for the old mill was a 24 man human treadmill! Huge conservation efforts are underway as more evidence is unearthed as teams of archaeologists begin digs in areas of the island.
Most moving in our tour was an opportunity to visit the “Isle of the Dead”. In 1833 only 3 years after the penal settlement was established Reverend John Allen Manton selected and renamed Opossum Island as “Isle of the Dead” as the settlements burial ground. For the 44 years that followed soldiers, wives, children, as well as convicts and boys from Point Puer were buried here. The “Free” persons were buried on the top of the hill while the convicts were buried on the lower part of the island. The island is approximately 2 acres in size and prior to 1854 no convict had a stone placed in their memory. After 1854, only a dozen ex convicts had a memorial erected for them and some of these stones are in the “free area”.
The number of dead continues to be a huge controversy – with records showing 1769 plus 180 “free” and other records showing 1100 buried. Much research continues and our guide for the Isle of the Dead tour, Michelle (Shelly) Kube, who has an obsession (fascinating one that is) with this island. For many years she has researched records and believes the number of dead stands closer to the higher of the 2 numbers. She has recently republished a book call “Mark Jeffrey, A Burglar’s Life”. We found and purchased a copy of the book, and it certainly does provoke the imagination. The Isle does talk – it’s interesting history demands a further look and the many tales speak to you. Just a magical place. We ended up purchasing several books about the penal colony and the Isle of the Dead to try and understand it more.
1. “Isle of the Dead.. Port Arthur’s Burial Ground” author Walter B Pridmore
2. Mark Jeffrey, A Burglar’s Life or “The Stirring Adventure of a Great English Burglar”, published by Shelly Kube
3. For the Term of his natural Life, author Marcus Clarke
As if there were not enough misery that unfolded in this area, on 28 April, 1996 a person killed 35 employees and visitors and injured dozens more in the area of the Broad Arrow Cafe. It is now a memorial site, very moving. We knew there was something sad and peaceful before even reading the information signs.
Port Arthur is definitely worth a longer visit but our legs couldn’t take much more walking in one day.