Our next destination was the Convict Trail on the Tasman Peninsula southeast of Hobart. We were immediately struck by the incongruity of such horrific history existing in such a lovely landscape. The Tasman Peninsula was chosen as a penal colony largely because it is nearly cut off from the rest of the state by a very narrow isthmus at Eaglehawk Neck. Several extraordinary geologic features caught our attention there including the Tessellated Pavement, a seaside platform of siltstone eroded into “loaves” and “pans” by water and salt-crystal action, creating tile-like patterns in the siltstone “pavement”; and Tasman's Arch, Devil’s Kitchen, and Tasman Blowhole, all created by the ocean’s erosion of the tall limestone cliffs that create the shoreline of the Tasman Peninsula.
But also at Eaglehawk Neck was a fairly abrupt introduction to the Convict Trail. Here at the narrow entrance to the peninsula, 18 vicious dogs were chained across the isthmus and out into the water. They were close enough together that they could eat from the same bowls but not touch or fight; there was no way a convict could slip between them without creating a ruckus to call the guards’ attention. This Dog Line is graphically illustrated with a vivid sculpture. Additionally, the Officers’ Quarters at Eaglehawk Neck is still conserved with excellent displays telling the stories of convicts and military personnel and their families who served and lived there.
Further south on the Tasman Peninsula, we arrived at Port Arthur Historic Site. Our entrance fees provided two days’ complete access to the 30 remaining buildings and ruins, a 40-minute Introductory Walking Tour with an excellent (and colorful) tour guide, and a 20-minute Harbour Cruise.
Port Arthur penal station was a complete settlement, with military personnel and free settlers in addition to the convicts and the staff necessary to maintain the prison. It was established in 1830 as a timber-getting camp using convict labor to produce sawn logs for government projects, but beginning in 1833, the penal station became a punishment station for repeat offenders aged 17 years and older from all the Australian colonies. Convicts were used as essentially slave labor producing worked stone and bricks, furniture, clothing, boats, and ships.
By 1840, over 2000 convicts, soldiers, and civil staff lived at Port Arthur, and it was a thriving industrial port. The largest structure on the site, The Penitentiary, began as a granary and flour mill. However, wheat does not grow well in this cool, wet climate, and the water wheel that was supposed to power the mill often had insufficient water flow to do its job, requiring that convicts walking on a treadmill provide the power. Eventually, as the number of convicts grew, it became necessary to have more room to house them, so the granary was then converted to house some 600 convicts. On the third floor it contained a large dining hall and a library with over 13,000 volumes.
Prison reformers in England had designed penitentiaries that were described as machines “to grind rogues into honest men,” and by 1847 the Separate Prison at Port Arthur was reforming convicts through “isolation and contemplation.” Prisoners were locked in single cells for 23 hours of each day where they ate, slept, and worked. One hour every day, each was required to walk alone in a high-walled yard for exercise. Even in the chapel, convicts stood in isolated "pews" for the required services. No conversation was allowed. This stringent regime broke the spirits of many men, but some left Port Arthur rehabilitated and skilled in a variety of trades.
On the Harbour Cruise, we passed the offshore site of Point Puer Boys' Prison, which operated from 1834-49. Here boys as young as nine years old were brought for punishment although most were between 14 and 17. This was the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory in the British Empire, and the boys were placed here to separate them from the criminal influence of the older convicts. The cruise also circled the Isle of the Dead where some 1100 military personnel and their dependents, free settlers, and convicts were buried.
In 1853, transportation of convicts to Tasmania ceased, and Port Arthur became an institution for aging and physically and mentally ill convicts. In 1877 the penal settlement finally closed. Many building were demolished or sold for their building materials. Several bushfires in the 1880s and ‘90s gutted many of the stone buildings. Those that remained became a new community renamed Carnarvon to try to eliminate the “hated convict stain.” However, the remains of the prison quickly became a tourist draw. By the 1920s many convict-period buildings had become museums, hotels, and shops, and the town was once again called Port Arthur. Among other conserved buildings are the remains of a beautiful non-denominational church, a large hospital, the dockyards, the Asylum (built in 1868 to house insane and infirm convicts and used later as Carnarvon’s Town Hall), and several houses of various civilian and military personnel including the Commandant’s House.
Following the Convict Trail on around the peninsula to the northwest corner, we visited the Coal Mines Historic Site, which describes the working situation of the convicts who were sent there from Port Arthur, producing inferior-quality coal in horrid conditions from 1834-48, and the military staff who guarded them. Both historic sites are managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority. They are part of 11 historic sites throughout the country that together form the Australian Convicts Sites World Heritage properties.
By the way, we did indeed get to watch our Seattle Seahawks in their second Super Bowl in two years. We watched (mostly by ourselves) in a chilly camp kitchen at the caravan park in Port Arthur – nice TV, though. There are fans of American football in Australia; they call it “gridiron football,” and Jon even had a little bet with one of the attendants at the caravan park who favored the other team. We were proud of the Seahawks for getting there; proud of the game they played; and sorry it ended the way it did. Wait ‘til next year; go Hawks!