Port Arthur Penal Colony – the Australian “prison of Silence”4 min read
Port Arthur is a small town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, Australia. Port Arthur is one of most significant heritage areas of the country and now an open-air museum.
The site forms part of the Australian Convict Sites, a World Heritage property consisting of 11 remnant penal sites originally built within the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries on fertile Australian coastal strips. Collectively, these sites, including Port Arthur, now represent, “…the best surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation and the colonial expansion of European powers through the presence and labour of convicts.”
Port Arthur was named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, the original name used by most Europeans for the island of Tasmania, part of Australia. was originally founded in 1830 as a timber station, even though its isolation made it the ideal place for a prison. As a result, it was quickly converted into Australia’s largest and most notorious prison colony.
The prison was completed in 1853, but then extended in 1855, with a layout symmetrical: It was a cross shape with exercise yards at each corner. The prisoner wings were each connected to the surveillance core of the prison, as well as the chapel, in the centre hall. From this surveillance hub, each wing could be clearly seen.
In order to pay for the cost of providing for the criminals it housed, the site became a center of industry. Prison industries such as ship-building, shoe-making, metal-smithing, and brick-making flourished in this isolated location, even though the prison dockyards were forced to close down after private shipwrights complained to the government that they could not compete with the quality of ships made by the prisoners.
Located on a remote peninsula, naturally protected on three sides by water, the prison was designed to primarily hold rough the hardest of convicted British criminals, those who were secondary offenders having reoffended after their arrival in Australia. In addition, Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system.
The concept of corporal punishment for crimes against society slowly gave way to new methods of “rehabilitation,” which may have actually been more cruel, including forced hard labor.
The hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations was thought to only serve to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways.
For example, food was used to reward well-behaved prisoners but also as punishment for troublemakers. As a reward, a prisoner could receive larger amounts of food or even luxury items such as tea, sugar, and tobacco. As punishment, the prisoners would receive the bare minimum of bread and water. Under this system of punishment, the “Silent System” was implemented in the building. Here, prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, and this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon the actions which had brought him there.
In many ways, Port Arthur was the model for many of the penal reform movement, despite its location and slave-labour use of convicts being as harsh, or worse, than others stations around the nation.
The peninsula on which Port Arthur is located is a naturally secure site by being surrounded by water, probably shark-infested. The 30-m-wide isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck that was the only connection to the mainland was fenced and guarded by soldiers, man traps, and half-starved dogs.
Port Arthur was described as an inescapable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in the United States, even if some prisoners tried to escape. Martin Cash, a notorious convict bushranger, successfully escaped along with two others. However, one of the most infamous incidents, simply for its bizarreness, was the escape attempt of one George “Billy” Hunt, who disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck. Despite this, the half-starved guards on duty tried to shoot him to supplement their meager rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes.
Prisoners who did not survive were buried on the small island cemetery known as “The Isle of the Dead.” Of the 1646 graves recorded there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked.
After the prison closed in 1877, despite the eerie surroundings, the area was redeveloped as a town, but fires in 1895 and 1897 left many of the original prison buildings gutted.
A more recent blood-stained incident brought the historical site back into the headlines: on Sunday, April 28, 1996, in Australia’s worst killing spree, a 28-year-old guy named Martin Bryant drove to the popular tourist spot and opened fire in the cafe, gift shop, and surrounding area, killing 35 people and wounding others.
He was caught and ultimately sentenced to 35 life sentences plus 1,035 years without parole in the psychiatric wing of Risdon Prison in Hobart, Tasmania. He will die in prison, but many are still affected by the senseless massacre. The original cafe was burned to the ground, and a monument was erected in honor of those who died.
Source and photos: Wikipedia.