Living in Sydney, with its glass office towers, opera house and beaches, it’s easy to forget about Australia’s convict past. European discovery and settlement of Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land) began in 1606 with the arrival of a Dutch ship, the ‘Duyfken’. Contact was sporadic for the next 164 years, until 1770 when Lt James Cook in the ship ‘Endeavour’ charted the east coast and claimed the land for England. January 1788 brought the arrival of the First Fleet, 11 English ships carrying more than 1,480 men, women and children — convicts, army and administrative personnel. This prison colony, formed at what is now the city of Sydney, was the beginning of the modern Australian nation.
Port Arthur is some 1,100 km south of Sydney, in the island state of Tasmania. It was first settled as a timber station, but between 1833 and 1877 it served as a prison colony. The site was carved out of the bush and industries such as ship building, shoemaking, smithing, timber and brick making began, all using forced convict labour.
The building that began as a flour mill and granary (built in 1843) was later (1857) converted to act as the penitentiary.
The Separate Prison took punishment from the physical to the psychological. Under the Silent System, prisoners were kept in isolation cells, hooded and forced to silence. Convicts in the Separate Prison received one hour of exercise each day: brisk walking in a walled-in courtyard, where silence was again the rule.
Not surprisingly, the regime inside the Separate Prison led to a number of instances of mental illness. This building, beside the Separate Prison, began as an asylum (and now houses a café).
Not only adults were incarcerated at Port Arthur. Boys as young as nine were sent here, and used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings they contributed to is this church, constructed in 1836-37. The church could hold 1,000 people and attendance was compulsory for convicts. A fire destroyed the building in 1884, leaving only the walls.
Government Cottage, built in 1854, was used to house visiting officials. It burned down in 1895. You can see a photo of the cottage and church before they burned here.
In contrast to the harshness of the convicts’ surrounds, the families of officers and officials could stroll in ornamental gardens, complete with imported trees such as weeping willows.
This avenue of trees leads to the Dockyard, which between 1834 and 1848 was a busy and productive shipyard. All that remains now are outlines of former buildings — boat sheds, steamers, a saw pit, the overseer’s hut and blacksmith’s shop. This ship sculpture sitting in an old slipway is a haunting reminder of the past.
After the closure of the site for prison purposes, the area was renamed Carnarvon. People bought land and built houses. Tourists also began to arrive, providing a new industry for the local residents. In 1927 the name Port Arthur was reinstated, and over the years, management of the site was taken over by the government. The Port Arthur Historic Site is one of 11 historic places that together form the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2010.