The bloody past of Port Arthur

from page 32 of The Daily Telegraph, May 1, 1996

by Margot Pitkin

  Chain gangs, solitary confinement, floggings with a cat o' nine tails and savage dog -- all were part of the everyday routine at Port Arthur.
  The site of last weekend's massacre has a bloody history -- it was one of Australia's most notorious 19th century penal settlements.
  There was only one escape for many sent there: death and burial in an unmarked grave on the Island of the Dead.
  Some prisoners were driven to commit murder in order to be sent to Sydney to reveive an almost mandatory death sentence. For many, it was preferable to rotting in Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania).
  The first penal settlement in Van Diemen's Land opened in January 1822. It was at Macquarie Harbour on the west coast, near Strahan.
  The main buildings were on Sarah Island, but more dangerous criminals were put on a small island, the Isle of Condemned Men.
  It was an appalling site. Huge waves, whipped by the Roaring Forties, crashed into the narrow, bottle-necked harbour.
  The entrance was so difficult to navigate that it became known as Hell's Gate. Vessels often had to wait days before making the dangerous run across the sand bar.
  For a decade it was the most savage settlement in the English-speaking world.
  The Lieutenant-Governor of the Diemen's Land, William Sorell, was determined that "prisoners upon trial (should) declare they would rather suffer death than be sent back to Macquarie Harbour".
  The penitentiary had drawbacks for administrators, including inacessibility and small capacity -- it could house little more than 350 prisoners. Such reasons led to the convicts being transferred to Port Arthur in 1832.
  By then Sorell had retired and was replaced by Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur.
  Under him, Port Arthur, whose daily administration was handled by the commandant, Charles O'Hara Booth, was conceived as a prison town for some of Australia's toughest convicts.
  The convicts would contribute free labour not only to atone for their crimes but also to make the settlement self-supporting.
  Thus it started as a timber-milling station, complete with timber houses, workshops, hospital, barracks and cells.
  As it progressed, stone buildings were erected -- they form the bulk of the ruins and restored buildings which greet tourists today.
  The settlement was a busy port in the 1830s. There were wharves, warehouses and dockyard run by convicts in conspicuous yellow uniforms. Inmates were often shackled together by chains and overseers were constantly in attendance.
  In the first five years more than 1700 convicts arrived at Port Arthur. On the whole, George Arthur was strict but fair. He declared the warders be as strictly disciplined as the detainees. But when convict justive was called for, it could be savage.
  All knew that Port Arthur was virtually escape-proof. Situated about 100km south of Hobart, it lay on a peninsula joined to the mainland by a stretch of land so narrow it could be protected by 11 savage dogs. Their fully-extended chains kept them within 15cm of each other.
  The dogs, supervised by armed guards, ensured that any convict trying to run this gauntlet would be torn to pieces.
  Some convicts tried swimming to the mainland. But most were either shot in the water or perished in the surrounding forests.
  Visiting boats were closely guarded and no seaman was allowed contact with the convicts. At night the small boats would be stripped of their oars and sails.
  Trouble-making convicts would be sent to mine coal under terrible conditions.
  Others would be used as human draught horses, manhandling carriages carrying visiting dignitaries or freight along a 8km-long, narrow-gauged wooden rail track.
  Service on the chain gang was another penalty for recalcitrants. It is thanks to many of these gangs that Tasmania has so many magnificent colonial bridges, public buildings and private homes.
  Floggings were frequent and savage although they were supervised by the resident medical officer. As a man worked his way through his sentence, good behaviour was rewarded with lighter duties.
  Those working in the settlement would be awoken by a bell at 5.30am in summer months and work through to 6pm. In winter, the hours were from 7am to 4.30pm.
  Education was included in the men's routine as was compulsory attendance at church services.
  It is said the church at Port Arthur, now a beautiful, gutted ruin, was never consecrated because it was the scene of two murders during its building.
  But being the settlement's only place of worship, it is more likely that it remained unconsecrated so that it could be used for both Protestant and Catholic services.
  As the settlement grew into a township, it became more sophisticated. In addition to private homes for the commandant, doctore and parson, there was a military barracks that housed 50 men.
  The convicts lived in the barracks, about 30 men to a section. They were constantly supervised by oversees.
  As well as the convict barracks, there were 12 cells, measuring 3m x 1.5m, used for solitary confinement. Convicts there would sleep on a narrow wooden shelf, the only furnishing in the cell, and were watched through a peephole in the cell door.
  There were many fierce debates about crime and punishment during the 19th century.
  Against the hitherto accepted "flog 'em" school of thought was the new concept of reform.
  The first experiment had been at Pentonville Prison in London. This new approach was also tried in Port Arthur.
  The "model" prison used primitive forms of brainwashing.
  Cells were designed so that prisoner were kept in isolation with neither speech, sight or phsyical contact permitted with any other human being.
  Prisoners were never addressed by name; the cell corridors were carpeted and the guards wore slippers to deaden sound. All communication between guards was by hand signal.
  Even at the chapel services, prisoners were isolated in separate, high-sided, box-like pews. The men had to wear hoods with eye slits whenever they were not in their cells.
  But time was catching up with Port Arthur. Free settlers who moved to the island, disliked the penal settlement.
  The last convicts arrived in 1853; two years later the stigmatised Van Diemen's Land was renamed Tasmania. The Port Arthur prison settlement closed in 1877.

[images: "Savage... a row of guard dogs was used at Port Arthur" (8x8)
"Home to some of Australia's toughest convicts... the notorious Port Arthur settlement in 1860" (13.5x8) ]

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