As previously mentioned, having a car did mean that we were able to make a day trip from Hobart to the site of the Port Arthur convict settlement, which is located approximately 60 km south west of the capital.
This settlement was originally established as a timber station in 1830, however it’s remote and reasonably escape proof location made it an ideal site for a penal colony. Between 1833 and 1853 some of the hardened British convicted criminals were sent to Port Arthur; in my understanding these were the secondary offenders who having served their original sentence had re-offended and been sent to this incredibly dreary and haunting location. The prison closed in 1877, with some of the last prisoners staying on after the end of their sentences as they simply had nowhere else to go and had become institutionalised.
Even as far back as 1927 the site was a popular tourist attraction, and in 1979 the site received funding in order to preserve it as a tourist destination; by 2010 the site was recognised by UNESCO as a historic site and placed on the World Heritage Register.
On the day of our visit the main building was unfortunately covered in restorative building works, which prevented us from having full access to the site. The weather was suitably grim and overcast, befitting the sombre mood encountered in all of the interesting buildings spread around the settlement. From the outside it is not really possible to see much, however with each entrance ticket is supplied a standard looking playing card, (in my case the 9 of spades) on the back of which are directions for the visitor to find the name and subsequent fate of one of the prisoners within the entrance museum displays. I don’t remember the name of the prisoner I was assigned, however I do recall that his sentence was, as to be expected, extremely harsh by modern standards.
Although the settlement was considered escape proof, it certainly did not deter some inmates from trying, with several successful attempts on record. The waters surrounding the settlement are very cold, with strong currents and if that were not deterrent enough there are also large sharks. However one inmate fabricated a dug out canoe and made good his escape; upon his subsequent recapture he was asked by the Governor how long it took to make the canoe, to which the prisoner apparently replied ‘less than an hour’. The Governor is reputed to have offered the prisoner a pardon from punishment for his escape attempt if he could in fact make another canoe within an hour and prove it’s seaworthiness. This the prisoner promptly did, the canoe being tested in the bay by the guards and so the Governor was good to his word.
Another more successful escape attempt apparently involved stealing the Commodore’s dinghy and sailing it out of the bay under the noses of the guards; this was done at the routine time that the dinghy would normally make a trip to another vessel in the bay so as not to arouse early suspicion. All those aboard were eventually recaptured, but only after several months at liberty (again, if I remember correctly one of the prisoners made it as far as NSW…)
The problem with escaping across the land lay in the fact that the colony is linked to the mainland by a 30m wide isthmus known as Eaglehawk Neck, which was of course heavily guarded and patrolled. Extending out from the small spit of land, the guards also had small platforms built upon each of which they kept half starved dogs, able to detect sounds that would not even reach a human ear, these guardians were another formidable barrier.
The circular separate prison was designated a place of total silence; the idea being that the prisoners should always feel themselves to be under the scrutiny of the guards, they were never allowed to communicate with each other and could only speak when addressed by the guards. They wore hoods to keep them in darkness, while the guards wore felt shoes so as to make no sound and communicated among themselves using sign language. Floggings were apparently a common occurrence, and it is little wonder that many developed mental illnesses from the lack of sight and sound.
Any visitor to the settlement cannot but be aware of the utterly dreadful events that occurred on the 28th April 1996, whereby a lone gunman continued his killing spree in the café and surrounds that ultimately claimed the lives of 35 people, with 23 wounded. In visiting the café, I personally felt an overwhelming sense of sadness; it has been left as a memorial to the unfortunate victims…