Australia // Tasmania //

Port Arthur historic site


In 1830, PORT ARTHUR was selected to host a prison settlement on the “natural penitentiary” of the Tasman Peninsula, its “gate” at Eaglehawk Neck guarded by dogs. It was intended for convicts who committed serious crimes in New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land after transportation. The regime was never a subtle one: Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur believed that a convict’s “whole fate should be … the very last degree of misery consistent with humanity”. However, his aim was to create “a machine to grind rogues honest”. This was rehabilitation rather than punitive punishment; work with the system and your years would slip past, fight it and you would be crushed.

The first 150 convicts established a timber industry, then Port Arthur became a self-supporting centre of industry, with shipbuilding, brickmaking, shoemaking, even agriculture. In a separate prison for boys at Point Puer, inmates were taught trades. Meanwhile, prison officers and their families enjoyed gardens, a drama club, a library and regular cricket. After transportation ended, psychological punishment replaced physical. The Separate Prison, based on Pentonville Prison in London, opened in 1852, where prisoners were held in tiny cells in isolation and silence, always referred to by numbers and hooded whenever they left their cells. The idea represented progressive penal ideas that let convicts contemplate their misdeeds, but by the time Port Arthur closed in 1877 it had its own mental asylum full of ex-convicts, as well as a geriatric home for ex-convict paupers.

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