Australia has been celebrating its convict past — again. In 2010, 11 dinky-di former convict sites were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. They are now recognised as places of “outstanding universal value” … “the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.”
Make of that what ye will. Among the 11 is Tasmania’s Port Arthur.
From 1833 until 1877 the prison at Port Arthur was the end of the line for those who got up the noses of the authorities in other Australian penal settlements. Here the cons could enjoy the strictest security measures British ingenuity could provide.
The layout of the complex was based on Jeremy Bentham’s Model Prison. Four prisoner wings radiated out symmetrically from a central surveillance core, with exercise yards in each corner.
The housing and labour conditions were as bad, if not worse, than in other Australian prisons. Of particular note, Port Arthur saw a move from physical to psychological punishment.
If that sounds like an improvement, it was not. It drove many inmates nuts.
As in other institutions, good behaviour was rewarded with luxury items such as tea, sugar and tobacco, with persistent troublemakers limited to bread and water.
But at Port Arthur prisoners were regularly hooded and made to stay silent for lengthy times to allow them to reflect upon their immoral and shameful ways. The result was an upturn in mental illnesses that required an asylum to be built next door.
Boys as young as nine were housed there, and when a tramway was established in 1836 between Taranna and Long Bay, north of Port Arthur, the sole propulsion was convicts.
Nonetheless, Port Arthur became the pin-up in the Mother Country among the enlightened touting for penal reform.
Port Arthur, too, was hyped as escape-proof. The connection to the mainland of the Eaglehawk was just 30m wide. It was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps and savage dogs.
However, this provided just the challenge the more inventive prisoners needed to relieve their boredom, and several successful escapes were made.
Critics have argued that in its use of psychological punishment, coupled with the scant hope of escape, Port Arthur was probably the worst of Australia’s convict institutions.
And, if you fancy a visit the next time you are in Tassie, you will find Port Arthur some 60km south-east of Hobart.
There is a pleasant scenic drive, or you can take the bus or ferry. It is also a great place to see and hear ghosts.