Australia has a rich convict history, and nowhere else in Australia is this better exhibited than at the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania. Port Arthur is nowadays more synonymous with the 1996 massacre which occurred there, when a deranged man randomly opened fire on employees and tourists, killing 35 and wounding many more. This led to Australia’s strict gun control laws. All guide books advise to not ask about the massacre as many of the employees working at Port Arthur in 1996 remain there today and many of them lost loved ones and friends. All the better, because it really gives a chance to focus on the real Port Arthur – the one with convict history.
First opened in 1833, the penal colony at Port Arthur was the destination for the worst of the worst – secondary offenders who were first sentenced to transport to Australia, and upon their arrival, committed more crimes. It was basically a harder prison for people who were already in prison somewhere else. This was not a place you wanted to be sent.
We began our Port Arthur experience with a nighttime ghost tour.
The tour was actually quite spooky, especially the once or twice when our guide made sudden movements.
We had planned to wake up the next morning and head up the coast, but it became apparent that all of us wanted to go back to get more of the history and see the site in the daytime. And so we did. A small museum in the visitor centre took us through a voyage from England to Australia, and then life at the penal colony on arrival. The ship’s menu alone was enough to put me off of crime for life:
I seriously would have starved. Vince was acting up, so I decided to shackle his legs.
You’ve been a naughty, naughty convict, Vince.
The church we had been through the previous evening was less creepy in daylight:
Notice that no roof exists on the church. Abandoned as a prison in 1877, the property was left to decay. Whatever wasn’t bulldozed or burned up in bushfires, slowly eroded over time as the locals tried to push aside the area’s convict history. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that there was enough interest in tourism that the government provided funding to restore the area. Some of the buildings have only outside walls remaining:
But one of the prison buildings has been beautifully restored to give a true depiction of life in hell. Here is one of the cells from the separate prison building:
A hammock! No way! But there isn’t any indoor plumbing in the cell so the hammock doubling as a toilet seems less exciting now. The separate prison building has its own church so that the worst convicts didn’t have to mix with employees and their families on Sunday mornings. I got up there and preached a beautiful sermon about the evils of right-wing evangelicals and the joys of Mexican cuisine. Sadly, all of the convicts were gone so I couldn’t really spread the word, but at least Vince heard my sermon and applauded mightily at the end. As I deserved.
Our tour ticket also included a short boat ride on the waters surrounding the prison, with the narrator pointing out the sites of the boys’ prison and cemetery that sit across the harbour.
We left Port Arthur that afternoon, but we had another dose of Tassie’s convict history several days later. Upon our arrival in Strahan, on Tasmania’s west coast, we were advised to check out The Ship That Never Was, Australia’s longest running play. The play, which they’ve turned into a comedy, got off to a very rocky, corny start. But after about 20 minutes, we were all pulled in. The play tells the story of a group of 10 convicts who stole a ship that was built at a convict settlement on Sarah Island, not too far from Strahan. They successfully sailed across the Pacific and made landfall on the coast of Chile. The various convicts involved ended up parting ways, with a few of them being captured and returning to Australia. At their trial, they argued that because the ship was never formally entered into service after its manufacture, the convicts were guilty only of the much lesser offence of simply stealing a bunch of wood. And they won. Clever lads.
The play is fairly low budget in that there are only two actors, plus one aspiring actor child from a local school. The rest of the parts are filled in by members of the audience, which is where it gets really funny. As I mentioned in a previous post, everyone is Tasmania is old. Except for one or two other people, the four of us were probably the youngest people in the audience by a good 30 years. So, the actors on stage were sure to pick on us. And they did. Mainly on Vince who played one of the biggest parts:
But Cade, Michael, and I weren’t left alone either. Michael had a bit part which I unfortunately don’t have any photos of, but I played the ship’s captain who was forced to abandon ship and swim to shore when the floating pile of wood ran aground off Chile:
And Cade – he played a parrot: