Convicts and ‘lunatics’: Port Arthur

I know the title is polictically incorrect, but today we’ve been back in time learning how convicts were treated in Port Arthur in the 1800s and how many ended up in asylums because of the way they were managed in the prison system at that time.

Port Arthur was a secondary punishment station that was established in 1830. Convicts who had been ‘transported’ from the UK to Australian colonies because of crimes, were sometimes sent to places like Port Arthur if they reoffended in Australia. In Port Arthur, convict labour was used, for example, to gather timber, work stone, and build ships and buildings. We had a 40 minute tour in which the guide explained a bit about the buildings at Port Arthur and the people who lived in them… convicts, officers, soldiers and their families.

After the tour, we had a 20 minute ride on a catamaran around the 2 islands that housed a boys’ prison (Puer Point) and the cemetery (Isle of the Dead). It was raining on and off while we did the walking tour but the weather gradually improved while we were on the boat.

We then had some lunch before wandering around the Port Arthur site. There are lots of buildings, although many burnt down in bush fires in the late 1890s. For example, there’s  the asylum, a guard tower, a hospital, barracks and officers’ quarters. The commandant’s and junior medical officer’s houses were particularly well appointed, and well preserved. There was a stark contrast between the lives of the convicts and the lives of the military and free men and their families.

A slight aside… While wandering around we spotted parrots and this honey seeker bird… very beautiful!

My ‘favourite’ or most intriguing building was the Separate Prison. When discipline, education, religious and moral instruction, and corporal punishment didn’t seem to work, this new prison delivered a new type of punishment… silence, isolation and contemplation. Convicts were locked in single cells for 23 hours a day and just had 1 hour of exercise alone in a high-walled yard .

Although some men left Port Arthur ‘rehabilitated’ and skilled as, for example, blacksmiths, shoemakers or shipbuilders, many men were ‘broken’. Some ended up in the asylum with mental health problems, while others were physically ill, or  institutionalised, old men unable to make a living elsewhere. A ‘paupers’ depot’ was built to house them. The penal settlement closed in 1887 and gradually became a small town, named Carnarvon, which became a tourist attraction. Some previous convicts acted as guides!

In 1996 a gunman shot 35 people and wounded 19 others on the Port Arthur Historic Site. After this tragic event, Tasmanian law was changed, banning automatic and semi-automatic guns. It’s a shame America doesn’t do the same.

We must have spent about 6 hours at Port Arthur and still didn’t see everything. No wonder the tickets are valid for 2 days. It was a fascinating place, and very sad and thought provoking. It was good to finish the day with a short walk to Remarkable Cave, where the waves rush through a long tunnel under a cliff, and watch the sunset on the way home.

We’ve had another delicious dinner at our Airbnb. Tonight Mike served steak followed by lemon tart… both favourites of mine 😊








One thought on “Convicts and ‘lunatics’: Port Arthur

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  1. Love these kind of stories – amazing how we have changed the way we treat prisoners so dramatically in last few years. And just as it wasn’t right back then, somehow I still don’t think we have it right.


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