Saturday, 3 January 2015

In The Nick

To keep us on our best behaviour Ella and Tim drove us to where 'our sort' would have stayed in Tasmania one hundred and fifty years ago - Port Arthur, a colonial prison.

Together we explored Tasmania's convict past at this World Heritage Listed Site. Port Arthur began in 1830 as a Timber Station, but in 1833 transformed into a self-contained, purpose built institution, intended to reform convicts through a brutal regime of hard labour. You could see many examples of the chilling realities of life as a convict in this colonial settlement. It was quickly apparent how harshly the convicts were treated.

The acts that got the prisoners condemned to transportation across the world and imprisonment where so minor compared with today's crimes. Stealing a pocket handkerchief or a loaf of bread, drunkenness in the street and even acquittal from a charge but the judge not liking"your sort" would be enough to condemn a man. Thousands of children were also imprisoned for such petty crimes, or even just to 'teach them a lesson' even when found not guilty! Maybe our current justice system should reflect upon its leniency?

The convicts labour activities were mostly boat building, construction of roads and buildings, logging timber and the mining of coal. Port Arthur's regime focused around a very strict working schedule and daily church attendance to reform the prisoners. 

Port Arthur was an example of the "Separate Prison Typology", this signalled a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment. It was thought that the hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations only served to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways. For example, food was used to reward well-behaved prisoners and as punishment for troublemakers.

Towards the back of the site thick oak trees lined the avenue to the ruined church. The church was built by the convicts but it was never consecrated. The guts and the roof had been burnt down by a bush fire not long after it was built. Ella and Tim thought about the possibilities of holding their wedding there as it had a stunning vista towards the bay.

We took a harbour tour on a large boat which guided smoothly around the bay. We passed the Island of the Dead, where the broken convicts were buried. The officers were buried in a separate graveyard in named graves with headstones, whilst the convicts had unmarked graves. It was astounding that over 1100 bodies were interned on this small island.

We strolled round the sandstone prison buildings in various states of restoration and the Governors house, servants quarters and stables. I thought about how the Governors wife might have felt. She would have been so far away from civilisation, surrounded by criminals and had to be the epitome of a lady for visiting dignitaries. Did she enjoy her lifestyle I wondered? The prison was closed in 1877 but during its 44 years thousands of prisoners passed through its gates, many of whom would never experience freedom again.

 On the waters edge at the Port Arther inlet

The prison buildings

Blocking the captains view

Cruising around the bay

Island of the Dead, the cemetery

The boat building area with a boat skeleton sculpture

The Governors House

The remains of the hospital

The remnants of the church

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