David Whitley faces the ghosts of the convict – and tragically more recent – past at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
At a certain point in time, the name ‘Port Arthur’ would be enough to strike fear into many a heart. Ifwas a convict settlement, then Port Arthur was the spot where those who the system hadn’t worked for got sent. In other words, it was the place where the bad boys who continued to be bad boys were kept.
Nowadays, this isolated Tasmanian outpost is the perfect spot to get a chilling insight into the whole transportation system and’s European-era history.
Afterwas settled in 1788, it was soon joined by a sister settlement with a much rougher reputation – Van Diemen’s Land. Due to negative connotations, this was later renamed ‘Tasmania’ after Abel Tasman, the Dutchman who first set foot there.
Around 70,000 convicts were sent to Tasmania during the years of transportation. Most would be either assigned to farmers or put to work building roads for three or four years and then given a ticket of leave that allowed them to be free within Australia. Around 9,000 reoffended and ended up at Port Arthur, however.
Open from 1830 to 1877, Port Arthur became Australia’s equivalent of Alcatraz. Situated at the end of the Tasman Peninsula – which in turn is at the end of the Forester Peninsula – Port Arthur was very easy to block off. The land routes were blocked off by lines of vicious, snarling dogs, whilst attempting to escape by sea was foolhardy at best. The water in these parts is generally freezing, while the authorities put about rumours of shark infestation to deter potential absconders. Given that the majority of convicts couldn’t swim anyway, they weren’t about to plunge in and try and front crawl it to civilization. Only eleven people managed to escape during the period of operation, and eight of those were recovered within a couple of weeks. Escape, they say, was easy. Survival wasn’t.
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These days, around 10% of the original Port Arthur settlement is still standing. Thefts after it closed in 1877 and two major bushfires have put paid to the rest. But it’s still a hugely impressive – and surprisingly beautiful. But a dark past lies amongst the buildings.
Some of the convicts were put to work in the granary, where they’d relentlessly have to walk to power the mill. Stop walking, and they’d fall off, probably injuring themselves. The hospital would have a constant flow of those with rheumatic and respiratory illnesses – partly due to working outside then coming back to sleep in cold cells. Industrial accidents were horrendously commonplace as well.
Some of the buildings remaining are the special punishment cells, used for those who had committed ‘misdemeanours’. The convicts would be locked in total darkness and silence for several hours a day, over a period spanning a month. Many new arrivals were subjected to this for four to twelve months, getting just an hour a day for exercise. Grim doesn’t even come close to covering it.
The museum at Port Arthur is really good too. Housed within the old buildings, it features a cabinet of wood carvings that prisoners created, and goes into the intricacies of life, such as the black market for luxury foodstuffs. You can also track down any ancestors that may have been housed at the site.
But above all, Port Arthur is a haunting place. The site reeks of ghost stories and tragedy. And it’s not just convict era tragedy either; on April 28th 1996, the worst spree killing in history took place in and around Port Arthur. Gunman Martin Bryant killed 35 people, including 20 inside what was then the Blue Arrow Café on the Port Arthur site. The shell of the cafe is now part of a memorial garden, which bears the names of those who died.
It’s still an extremely sensitive subject at Port Arthur. Some staff members were there on the day, and visitors are asked to remain respectful and not talk about it. That some of the ghosts are far too recent for comfort gives Port Arthur an extra, disturbing edge that the prettiness of the cove it is set on cannot take away.
Do it! Port Arthur can be reached as part of a day tour (£) from Hobart in Tasmania.