Prisons, a contentious issue at the best of times are still to this day our main method of rehabilitating criminals and punishing them for their crimes. The means of imprisonment and punishment have changed over the centuries since the earliest form of legal codes was written up in 1750 BC but our current system has been in place for quite some time
Port Arthur began as a simple timber station in 1830 but began its now famous role as a penal colony shortly after in 1833. The people of Britain and the colonies were becoming disenchanted with the severity of punishments being carried out, particularly the death penalty for petty crimes. Banishment to Port Arthur was seen as a more “humane” alternative but as we’ll see, perhaps the death penalty would have been easier on the poor souls transported there.
Convicts were transported to Port Arthur from England and Ireland as well as from the burgeoning colonies within Australia. They were made to carry out hard labour, cutting down trees and preparing them for use in the timber industry. A shipyard was also built on the site and some of the better behaved convicts were put to work as shipmakers and carpenters, while others acquired the skills to become blacksmiths or shoemakers and went on to live successful lives after the end of their sentence.
It wasn’t all just education and labour though, this was a penal colony after all and that meant punishment and discipline as well as religious and moral instruction, classification and separation. Port Arthur’s Separate Prison was constructed in 1853 and based on Pentonville penitentiary in England. It was here that prison rules were strictly enforced. Convicts were locked up 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, forbidden from making any noise so that they could dwell on their crimes. When they were allowed out of their cells for mass or exercise they had to wear masks and stand in individual cubicles inside the chapel unable to see their fellow inmates. The guards communicated with sign language to ensure complete silence and only when they were locked in their cells could the convicts remove their masks.
This prolonged period of silence and darkness had the unexpected (at the time) consequence of making many of the convicts mentally and physically ill. Many were no longer able to carry out the hard labour and with an ageing prison population experiencing mental instability it was decided a mental asylum would need to be built on the site. The penal colony was closed in 1877, more than two decades after transportation to Van Diemen’s land ended. The site fell into disrepair and many of the buildings were damaged or destroyed by large bush fires at the end of the 19th Century.
In an attempt to remove the negative stigma associated with the site, the area was renamed Carnarvon, however a growing tourism trade saw great interest in the site and it was soon renamed Port Arthur and the foundations for the current exhibit space were laid.
Visiting Port Arthur today, the area has an air of calmness and serenity that is quite eerie considering its past. The polished houses, churches, municipal buildings and gardens of the staff and military personnel who resided on the site make for a quaint little village atmosphere but the eroded facades of the penitentiary are never far from view. As part of the entrance fee visitors get to take a ferry trip around the bay and the Isle of the Dead (I know, sounds like a cheesy zombie B-movie). It is here that over 1,100 people are buried including military and civil officers and their families as well as numerous convicts, although their graves remain unmarked. That sense of calm and tranquillity can also be felt emanating from the Isle of the Dead as you sail around it on the ferry trip, it’s really quite surreal.
Walking around the site you get a real sense of the divide between those living freely at Port Arthur, and those in chains. You can picture children playing on the grounds, while mere feet away convicts sat in utter silence, and complete darkness if they were being kept in the isolation cells. Having visited Alcatraz in America, that same sense of peace was prevalent there too. I don’t know if it’s the picturesque location (particularly in Port Arthur’s case) or that whatever horrors happened in those places have now ended but they all have this strange air that I just can’t explain. I remember being on Alcatraz and thinking how nice it would be as an entertainment venue out in the bay, a restaurant or hotel with wonderful views of San Francisco. Port Arthur makes for a lovely quaint little village where you could go out for a sail in a yacht from every weekend or just laze around by the waters edge.
Is it because I’ve only ever known freedom and very little hardship that I just can’t relate to the convict experience or get a feeling for what it was like? More than likely yes but that doesn’t mean a trip to Port Arthur is a wasted one. Far from it. It’s a fascinating journey back in time to the early days of Australia and Tasmania and something that shouldn’t be forgotten or paved over.
And now for some photos. I’ll be uploading a more comprehensive gallery on the Facebook page.