Bob picked me from the hotel in Hobart today for a full day trip out to the Tasman Peninsular with a focus on the convict site at Port Arthur. The scenery here is breathtaking and despite the fact we were going on a Sunny Sunday in spring there were few other people around. The view over Pirates Bay early in the morning was stunning, but then natural beauty started to combine with human savagery. Eaglehawk Neck is a small strip of land that connects the peninsula to land. In order to prevent escape a set of 18 savage dogs were chained across this strip and meat thrown into the adjacent water to attrack sharks. The sculpture above gives you a sense of this.
Port Arthur was of course the prison of last resort and there was no road access; convicts, provisions and staff all came by boat from Hobart, a journey that could take between four and sixteen hours according to the weather. When you arrive there the site is idyllic, it looks like it should be home to a monastery. Green fields follow from gentle wooded slopes to the waters edge of a natural harbour. The water is a rich blue, clear and unpolluted and just beyond the headland the next landfall would be the Antarctic. There is a sense of the peace and tranquility of natural beauty on all sides. However in the 19th Century this was a punishment station for repeat offenders from all the Australian Colonies. By 1840 over 2000 convicts, soldiers and civil staff lived here; there was a thriving boat yard and a managed network of outstations which used convict labour in forestry and agriculture.
When you arrive they give you a playing card (mine was the eight of clubs) which links you to a specific convict whose arrival, punishment and death you can follow. A good idea as it personalises the experience to a degree. The walk around the site takes you past the impressive St David’s Church (the Cathedral in Hobart is also St David’s and there are a lot of Welsh names here), the houses of the medical staff and clergy and thence to the model prison (which also has a good coffee shop. Now this prison is scary in a different way, it is a part of the enlightened movement on prison reform that started with Bentham in London. The cells radiate from a central area and are clear, with a desk and bed role (hung at nights from hooks in the wall). There are book shelves, a slop bucket and a rigourous cleaning programme is evidenced by the various notices. Then you dig deeper, this was a place of true solitary confinement in which all human contact and any noise was eliminated. The floors were deadened with carpet to prevent any noise from intruding on the patient/convicts reflection on their various transgressions. They could leave for daily exercise, but had to don caps that obscured their faces and were taken to solitary areas and then returned. A visit to chapel involved an elaborate choreographing of movements so that all prisons stood in enclosed stalls where they could only see the preacher not each other. The humanity of the physical conditions contrasts with the inhumanity of the psychological ones.
Above the model prison we come to the house where William O’Brien was confined following his arrest in 1848. O’Brian was a leader of the early Irish Independence movement; a Protestant like many of the early campaigners. He was a member of parliament, and a gentleman so treated differently from others. But in the same house there are display boards that recognise the Welsh Chartists whose sentence of hanging drawing and quartering was commuted to transportation for life to what was then Van Deemen’s Land. Only a 100 years later all of the chartists demands bar one (Annual elections to Parliament) had been achieved, as had Irish Independence.
A boat trip then takes you past he burial island an the peninsular where another pioneering prison reform is evidenced. For the first time young boys were separated into a correctional institution where they were taught to read and provided with a trade. In those days you could be hung at the age of 7 and transported for life at the age of 8 and in the main for petty crime. There is a natural temptation as you return to think that we have come a long way since those days, and in many ways we have. But a final reminder awaits in the old restaurant area which has now been demolished to make way for a memorial garden. On Sunday 28th April 1996 a single gunman killed 35 people here. He shot one mother then hunted down her two children killing them. Captured the next day he is now serving a life sentence. The site is not sign posted, without Bob I would have walked past it. The memorial cross is simple and effective and an entry in the guidebook tells it all. It simply asks people not to ask staff about the massacre. Many lost friends, colleagues and family on that day.
As you leave that place, across the valley floor you see the line of trees planted to commemorate the senseless killing of the first world war. This is a place of great beauty, which has seen terrible things done, often in the name of God and of the Good. It is a sobering place, but one I want to revisit.
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