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Port Arthur Historic Site

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Natural Wonders

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Amazing Walks

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Unique Wildlife

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Stunning Coastline

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Amazing Locations

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1.1 The Convict Experience

Tasmania is very strongly, and justifiably, associated with the Australian Convict Transportation System. Most convicts came to Australia after 1820, and after 1840 they nearly all came to Tasmania. Consequently, the ‘romantic’ ruins at Port Arthur have become a monument to the system by which European society was translated to this continent and the ‘Gothic Horror Stories’ associated with this place have come to dominate perceptions of transportation.

The Convict Experience

Such perceptions can be seen as somewhat unfortunate because incarceration at Port Arthur was not the typical experience of a person transported to Australia, or even to Tasmania - for two reasons. Firstly, because Port Arthur was a male-only prison, whilst one in seven convicts were women. Secondly because it was a ‘place of secondary punishment’ where men were sent if they misbehaved after arriving in the colony and only around ten per cent of convicts ever saw the inside of such a place.  

A far more common experience of a convict on a typical seven-year sentence in (say) the 1830s would be to go to work for a settler ‘on assignment’ and to become free on a ‘ticket of leave’ within a few years. A well behaved person would then go on to receive at least a conditional pardon within the period of their sentence. The Gothic Horror tales of brutal discipline and physical punishment with the dreaded cat o’ nine tails do not even reflect the experience of most of the men sent to Port Arthur. Physical chastisement was only common in the early days of the settlement: from 1840 the lash was increasingly replaced with solitary confinement as the strongest punishment, and after 1850, the whip was not used.  

Port Arthur was also not the only convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula. Out-stations for coal-mining, food production and the housing of boys were established soon after settlement, and six more ‘probation stations’ were added when the convict system was changed to reflect political opinion in Britain that the ‘assignment system’ was not a sufficient deterrent to crime. There were tales – some true – that people were committing crimes to get sent to Australia. The officials in the convict system had a conflicting brief. On the one hand they were supposed to make the experience of transportation miserable, and so for it to act as a deterrent to crime in Britain and Ireland; on the other, they were to build a society in Australia, and thus establish British power in the South Pacific. Also, the more enlightened of the officials in the convict system believed that meaningful work was the key to reforming a criminal; consequently, even at a maximum security institution such as Port Arthur, a great deal of productive work was done.  

Many trades were practiced and taught at Port Arthur – there was a large boot factory, for instance. However, the largest industry and why the settlement was established in the first place, was timber-getting, mainly exploiting the ‘great ashes’ – the huge Eucalyptus species that grow on the Peninsula. A natural spin-off of the timber industry was ship-building, using the local blue gum for larger, decked vessels, and Huon Pine imported from the west coast of Tasmania for open boats. There was a dock-yard at Port Arthur for two decades, and, in that time, fifteen decked vessels were built, varying in size from fishing boats to small ships as well as over a hundred open boats.  

From 1840, all convicts sent to the colonies came to Tasmania and their conditions of exile were completely changed. Under the ‘probation system’ all male convicts (the vast majority) were to live in convict villages ‘out of town’, sleep in dormitories, work in gangs and be subject to strict discipline and constant surveillance - and no recognition or use was to be made of any skills they might possess.  

By the end of that decade, the convict population of the Tasman and Forestier Peninsulas had reached 10,000, and the region had become a laboratory of penology where modern methods of incarceration were trialed. One such was the replacement of physical chastisement (the dreaded lash) with solitary confinement in darkness and silence (the dumb cell) for punishment.

Women under the ‘probation system’ were kept at separate institutions and subject also to hard labour and solitary confinement.  None of these were on the Peninsulas which were almost exclusively male domains, and, in fact, the imbalance of the sexes in the whole colony was extreme. This reflected the different rates at which men and women – then and now – commit crime, and so who was being transported, but it led to the existence of a very strange society.

Convict transportation to Tasmania finished in 1853, and the convict system rapidly contracted and became less productive as prisoners finished their sentences and those stuck in the system became aged and infirm. Industry contracted: the dockyards at Port Arthur had closed in 1850 but the settlement hung on until 1877, by which time it was really a welfare depot looking after old convicts who were indigent, invalid or insane – the last commandant was a doctor. And then, under the influence of a world-wide, blockbuster, hit novel, The Term of His Natural Life, Port Arthur became a tourist attraction – welcome! But please explore some of the other intriguing sites of the convict experience you can find on the Peninsula.

James Parker