Tragic epilogue to a bloody history

from page 3 of The Australian, April 29, 1996

by Stuart Washington, AAP

  Yesterday's massacre at Port Arthur cuts an indelible scar into the history of one of Australia's most brutal penal settlements -- a history already stained with blood.
  For all the suffering in Port Arthur's past and present, the historical site of its ruins is strangely beautiful, with sandstone buildings set in 45ha of open grassy parkland.
  The one-time "model prison" is set against a typically Tasmanian back-drop of a bay and islands, including the Isle of the Dead, and has become a picturesque drawcard for mainland and international tourists.
  It is this seemingly idyllic setting that became the backdrop yesterday for the worst massacre in Australia's modern history.
  The shootings occured on the site's busiest day of the week, when hundreds of families flock to the area, about 100km from Hobart, to view the landmark of Australia's penal past.
  The beauty of the area also disguises some of the worst excesses of the harsh penal period when it was used as prison from 1830 to 1877.
  It has been a tourist attraction ever since.
  At its peak the settlement, isolated geographically by the Tasman Peninsula's land bridge of Eaglehawk Neck, housed about 1200 convicts and 1000 others.
  Its hounding penitentiary was over-taken in 1852 by the "model prison", which replaced the rule of the lash and other instruments of torture with methods of correction which were possibly even crueller.
  This included prisoners being locked in solitary confinement to work in total silence, with the system extending to prisoners wearing masks whenever they left their cells.
  Similarly inmates attended services together in the chapel -- but they were segregated individually in boxes that faced only the chaplain.
  Any wavering and prisoners faced imprisonment in darkness and silence on bread and water for up to 30 days.
  The crimes for which the prisoners were serving sentence included burglary, receiving, forging, uttering and unnatural acts.
  The Isle of the Dead is perhaps the strongest mute testament to the suffering at the convict settlement -- it houses the graves of 180 non-convicts and 1796 convicts and paupers.

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