Port Arthur

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Grinding rogues into honest men

The prison at Port Arthur as seen from sea. Photo by David Lansing.

It was cold and gloomy when we hopped aboard the Zodiacs taking us from the ship to Port Arthur. Appropriate weather for our visit to Tasmania’s infamous convict prison. This is the way arriving prisoners would have seen it. From the water. If you got sent here, you were in for it, mate. The system used here was concocted by a British sadist named Jeremy Bentham who described is as “a machine for grinding rogues into honest men.”

I don’t know how many honest men emerged from the cramped, dank quarters of the prison. Not many, I reckon. The cogs of Bentham’s machine included discipline and punishment for the slightest offense. The cat-o’-nine-tails was a popular form of punishment but the biggest form of torture was psychological torture. The coffin-sized cells in an area called the Separate Prison were for “prisoners of bad character” who had hoods placed over their heads and were forbidden from talking. They were locked into these cells for 23 hours each day with just one hour a day allowed for exercise, alone, in a high-walled yard. Can you imagine? No wonder so many of the prisoners ended up going crazy. So much for reforming criminals into “honest men.”

I walked around the ruins of the prison and even sat in one of the brick-walled cells looking out at the harbor where whisps of low-lying clouds, like smoke, floated over the dark waters, trying to imagine what must have gone through the heads of the men who stared out at this same scene a hundred and fifty years ago. How hopeless you would feel.

After touring the prison, we were given the option of taking a boat to the nearby Isle of the Dead where some 1100 of the convicts (most of whom died from respiratory disease in this cold and dank spot) were buried, but I declined. It was just too sad.

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Tasmania’s troubled past

Port Arthur prison ruins. Photo by David Lansing.

The typical reaction, when I told people I was going to Tasmania, was, “Wow…Umm, where is that exactly?”

Just to be clear: Tasmania is 150 miles south of Australia. It is not a country; it is an Australian state. Like Victoria. Or New South Wales. It is the size of Ireland. Or West Virginia. Some say its profile on the map looks like a human heart. Others say it’s like an apple with a bite taken out of it.

Here’s what one Tasmanian author has written about his country: “In Tasmania the population—sometimes referred to as Tasmaniacs—was so backward and inbred that visitors were advised ‘to grow an extra head’ (in Hobart you can buy a T-shirt with a spare hole).”

This reputation, unjust, is a result of its history. There were basically three types of Brits who first came to Tasmania in the early 1800s: convicts, prison wards to guard the convicts (who were often ex-convicts), and the black sheep of British aristocracy; usually men, but sometimes women, who had made a mess of things back home or were disgraced for one reason or another and were quietly sent packing to this secret, rarely visited island, where, it was hoped, they might make a fresh start. Sometimes they did; usually they didn’t.

The most interesting Tasmanian story to me is the island’s role as a dumping ground for convicts from all the U.K. colonies. In the fifty years from 1803 to 1853 some 75,000 convicts were transported to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land. That’s a lot of convicts. Particularly when you realize that according to the census of 1847, the island’s total population was around 70,000 people; of those, it was estimated that just over 50% were, or had been, convicts.

I mention all this because this morning we dropped anchor in Port Arthur, without doubt the most notorious penal station in Tasmania if not all of Australia. From 1833 to 1877 it was used as a punishment station for repeat offenders from England, Ireland, India and Australia. They say that even today, there is an air of sadness so strong hanging over the former prison grounds that it is palpable. No doubt it will be sad. But it’s something I feel I have to experience.

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