Visitors to the Tasman Peninsula are often startled by the extraordinary beauty of its ocean beaches or quiet bays, its forested hills and green farmlands, its towering rock formations and brilliant wildflowers. They arrive expecting a frowning landscape in keeping with the place's notoriety as a 'natural penitentiary' and find themselves confronted by one of the world's scenic wonders.
During the nineteenth century, despite the Romantic legacy of admiration for 'sublime' mountainous landscapes, the Victorian's dedication to progress and piety led men like John Dunmore Lang to prefer the little spots of 'blooming land' created by disciplined human toil to 'the vast cheerless forest' surrounding them. Yet even the sternly practical Archibald Blackwood, who surveyed the Peninsula in 1873, noted that Norfolk Bay was 'very pretty', while in the section of his journal published as The Gardens of Hell, the Irish political prisoner, John Mitchel remarked: 'In vain I reflect that ... these ancient mountains with the cloud shadows flying over their far-stretching woodlands are but prison walls ... It will not do here.'
Nowhere is the contrast between scenic beauty and a grim history more striking than at the Coal Mines in the Peninsula's north-west. Today the blue water and softly rolling hills, seen through apertures in the massive stone ruins of convict buildings, bring to mind scenes from the Aegean. Yet a few metres away lie the remains of the underground cells, like brick-lined coffins let into the ground.
When coal was discovered at Plunkett Point in 1833, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur recognised an opportunity to combine a profitable commercial venture with a means of punishment for refractory convicts from Port Arthur. Although the coal cracked and spat when burned ‘to the detriment of carpets, furniture, ladies' gowns', it was cheaper than coal imported from New South Wales and, for a time, helped to defray the expenses of the convict system.
Mining at first was carried out by adits: tunnels driven in horizontally from close to the water's edge. Later shafts were sunk and a network of tunnels dug, with a steam engine to pump water from the mine. Coal was winched up the shafts in baskets and tipped into carts which ran on tramways to be loaded onto ships at the jetties. By 1842 the mine was producing 250 tons of coal each week, substantial buildings of stone and brick had been erected and extensive gardens laid out. Bishop Nixon's paintings of the settlement show a safely remote background of sea, forest and mountain behind a cluster of buildings, neat and cosy as an ideal English village. But there are no convicts in the paintings.
In fact, the number of prisoners at the station was rising toward 600 with 110 employed as miners. As David Burn reported: 'The mines are esteemed the most irksome punishment the convict encounters, because he is not a practiced miner, and ... labours night and day, eight hours at a spell.' The work was dangerous. Water broke into the workings and the air in the tunnels was so confined and damp that one group of visitors had difficulty keeping their lamps burning. The tunnels where the men hacked at the coal face or carted loads to the shaft, were no more than four feet high. 'Complete surveillance' was impossible so that 'unnatural crime' was common. Some tunnels contained punishment cells where offenders placed in solitary confinement saw nothing of the Edenic landscape overhead - nothing but the darkness of Hell.