Sunday, March 8, 2009

Port Arthur: A World-Class Monument to Humanity’s Cruelty

The huge popularity of the Port Arthur Historic Site, the former penal settlement in Tasmania, is due to our dark side ... and we all have one. We’re drawn to the horror stories about the hardened men and boys who were incarcerated here. It is also a key part of Australia’s unique history as a convict colony.

As my dearest and I entered, our first impression was of Port Arthur’s vast size. After its founding in 1833 it grew into a major penal and industrial centre with over 200 buildings and many trades before it was closed in 1877. Today about 30 buildings in various states of rehabilitation sprawl over a large site, which was magnificent, even in the light rain we encountered.

We started with a short cruise. The guide noted that Port Arthur had been completely serviced via the sea. We circled the Island of the Dead where free people were buried with gravestones on the high land and convicts in unmarked graves on the low ground. Back on land we wandered in intermittent rain through the sandstone ruins of the penitentiary, the hospital (all operations were conducted without anaesthetic), the guard tower, servants’ quarters and the restored Commandant’s house, whose palatial elegance contrasted with the miserable conditions of the prisoners. We wandered through the flagellation area to the Separate Prison, probably the saddest display, where the convicts were kept in solitary confinement and silence. They had to wear hoods and slippers for the one hour a day they were allowed out of their cells. As we were leaving, a group of young students set up an enormous wailing as they were "locked"in to the prison by their teachers. Next we wandered through the pleasant cottages of the free people like the chaplain and doctor to the ruins of the church.

As we left we wondered why people are so intrigued by this penal colony. Because it’s Australia’s heritage? Because we could so easily cross the line and find ourselves in a place like this? Because we are naturally drawn to horror stories? Whatever, it’s a fabulous place.
For information: &

No comments:

Post a Comment