Inescapable – Port Arthur, Tasmania

3rd November

Ever wake up feeling something isn’t right? Yeah, my ankle wasn’t right. That old Bali coral injury had come back to haunt me. Swollen, itchy and red, my head was saying that this must be the bruising coming out, despite it being fine since the incident. Something was telling me I needed to check it out. Sure enough the efficient doctors of Hobart identified infection. Apparently coral contains bad bacteria. Oh dear.

This didn’t dampen our keenness to explore the area. Just outside Hobart is both Port Arthur and The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). Both should be top of the list of those visiting Hobart. As I didn’t fancy walking too far with the swollen monstrosity that was my foot we tried to get to MONA.

Having stressfully navigated ourselves, GPS free, out of the city centre we then missed the turning and began making our way over the Tasman Bridge and out of the city towards Port Arthur. Turning back around after some while in the wrong direction we turned off correctly and headed to the museum. Only to find it closed. For no reason other than, we could only assume, to clean. Bad luck us.

We had to visit one of the two so it was that we found us going back in the ‘wrong’ direction, now the right direction, the hour drive to Port Arthur.

We discussed the horrific events of the 1996 massacre that had occurred there, quietly thinking about the many who had headed to Port Arther that day just like we were today and the significance the building had as one of the most notorious convict prisons and the site of one of the worst killing sprees committed by a single person.

We arrived too late to partake in any of the tours – get there early if you want to see Point Puer, the boys prison and to get a guided tour of the whole area.

Port Arthur consists of 11 penal sites and is most associated with being one example of the ‘Separate Prison Typology’.

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Separated from Tasmania by a narrow neck of land surrounded by shark-infested waters, Port Arthur was sold as the ‘inescapable prison’. From 1833 until 1853, it was the destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia. Those who worked hard were rewarded with schooling, extra food and the ability to make money on the side. Those who did not work hard were punished and forced to work in ‘gangs’, groups of men working without food and water and who wore heavy ankle chains all day and all night. Many died in these conditions and those who didn’t were so beaten down they were unfit to work.

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Those who continually rebelled against the authorities or who were deemed a threat to camp environment were sent to the 80 cell separate prison, one of the first of it’s kind. It upheld the philosophy that breaking down the prisoners mental state, instead of corporal punishment, would prevent them from offending again. Prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, supposedly allowing them time to reflect upon their actions which had brought him there. Their only form of mild interaction was during the church service held in the onsite chapel and their daily hour long exercise. Even this was held in silence and the prisoners were only permitted to walk in a circle around a walled courtyard.

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Several exercise courtyards show how small the area was outside the cell

Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed mental illness from the lack of light and sound but despite these conditions, there was only one recorded suicide in the unit.

The area is still haunting. Guests are asked to walk around the area in silence, so as to try to experience the same conditions as the prisoners. The only sounds are footsteps, occasional coughs and, periodically, the rousing verse of a hymn coming from the chapel. It is nightmarishly eery.

The other buildings are shells of their former selves. The main prison is a majestic building with only outer walls, having suffered from fire and neglect.

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After the prison closed in 1877 the town of Carnarvon was born. The town brought in many visitors as they encouraged boating, fishing and shooting in the natural beauty of the Peninsula. The ghost of the prison was soon put to one side.

However, today the area is one of Tasmania’s main tourist attractions, teaching visitors about the penal settlement and remembering that sad part of Australian-British history and all those who died there.

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Despite its reputation as a pioneering institution for the new, ‘enlightened’ ideals of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still in reality as harsh and brutal as other penal units, such as Pentonville. Some might even believe that its use of psychological punishment, combined with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some stories suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. Their final destination would be the Island of the Dead, a mass grave for all those who died inside the prison camps.

A very humbling and emotional day in the presence of so much history.

Flo x

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One Comment Add yours

  1. I love post! Very informational

    Like

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