The Ten Commandants, Port Arthur, Tasmania
There’s a million dollar view over Mason Cove from the failed flour mill when the conditions are right. As they were for me on this fine and sunny autumn day.
I was outside.
It was warm.
And I was there by choice.
I was lucky. Those three factors aren’t always present on prison visits. They’re even less likely in a penal settlement as notorious as Port Arthur, Australia’s best known convict penitentiary on the Tasman peninsula, a 90 minute drive from Hobart.
Getting here at last had only taken … well, never mind how many years since I read about it. I was here now, so I slapped down the moral dilemma of whether or not it was ethical to spend money on being entertained by other people’s suffering and set off to enjoy myself.
Because that’s what you do in a World Heritage listed convict settlement, right??
A Room with a View
Despite being surrounded by evidence of suffering and death, Port Arthur is strangely serene. Although it’s unlikely the blissful serenity OR the staggering scenery would have been quite so noticeable to the 600+ convicts locked up in the flour mill – converted into the main penitentiary after a failed attempt to provide the colony with its own flour supply.
Perhaps the better outlook enjoyed by the well-behaved convicts from their bunks on the 3rd and 4th floors above the lower level cells containing the hardened criminals was a small consolation.
Maybe the only one.
As a secondary punishment site for repeat offenders from all over Australia, Port Arthur was modelled on the ideas of prison reformer Jeremy Bentham as ‘a machine for grinding rogues into honest men’*. That meant an unpalatable cocktail of discipline, religion, training and punishment by solitary confinement.
And all that grinding happened in an area with an annual rainfall of ~850 mm falling on ~190 days a year and maximum temperatures averaging below 15° C. That meant a LOT of cold, dismal days. No surprises about the high incidence of respiratory problems and rheumatic ailments.
Life at Port Arthur
Down here, with nothing much between the coast and Antarctica, a life sentence meant exactly that. At the narrow neck of land connecting the peninsula to the rest of Tasmania there’s a line of dogs. Around the peninsula are treacherous waters, massive cliffs and wild weather. Escape? I don’t think so.
So was ‘enjoying’ the ‘killer view’ during what I KNEW would be a short stay with a departure time chosen by ME profoundly disrespectful to the 1100 convicts and settlers buried on the Isle of the Dead out in the bay?
Because this view was the last one they’d seen??
Whether yes or no, I’m in good company. Renamed ‘Carnarvon’ when the prison closed in 1877 after nearly 50 years – and TEN commandants (yes, that’s what my post title means!) – the township soon became a tourist attraction and the name changed back to Port Arthur.
As tourist demand increased, it’s been re-developed and restored into a key site of the 11 that comprise the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property.
And the tourists who keep rolling in aren’t just here for the fine bakery food up in the Port Café!
There’s a fine line between having a keen and inquiring mind and just being plain nosey. So the fascination my glimpse into this other world so alien, yet so much a part of colonial Australian history, gave me could go either way. Right? RIGHT??
Discovering Port Arthur
Exploring the Port Arthur site makes those history lessons of (not so) long ago real.
There’s the contrast between the convicts and the officers spelled out in the rough stone cells vs the comforts of the commandants house.
The massive government gardens where officers and their families could escape the taint of the convicts under their charge.
The Dockyard employing up to 70, where 166 boats both large and small were built.
The first juvenile reformatory in the British Empire where boys from 9-17 were educated at Point Puer, just across Mason Cove.
The church where up to 1100 people attended compulsory services.
And questions I’d never before thought to ask were answered.
Questions like what happened when a convict ‘lifer’ became too old or ill work – and thus earn their keep? And what happened if the harsh conditions tipped a convict over the edge of sanity?
They were housed in the Pauper’s Depot (self explanatory) or Asylum – now a Museum and Study Centre – although I didn’t find out what happened to those still alive when the penal settlement was closed. Is this the forgotten tragedy of this era?
Modern Day Tragedy at Port Arthur
But the tragedies that define Port Arthur sadly didn’t end back in the late 1800s.
The Memorial Garden built around the remains of the Broad Arrow Café commemorates the 35 visitors and staff killed and 19 wounded by a gunman in 1996. It’s a place to honour the ordinary people like you and me whose lives were brutally and senselessly lost or changed forever.
And a place to re-affirm that life is to be enjoyed and savoured.
I’m still not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word to describe my day in Port Arthur. But I don’t think I’ll be taking my freedom, choices and life for granted any more.
Have YOU been to Port Arthur? Do you have family connections from Port Arthur?? Let me know in the comments below!
- Port Arthur Historic Site
- Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property
- Discover Tasmania
- MORE Photos on Flickr
Don’t take my word for it – make your OWN date with history and see it for yourself! These cheap flights will get you started!
* Quoted from the Port Arthur Historic Site Visitor Guide, also used extensively as a reference for this post.
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