We arrived at Hobart airport in the biting wind and 10 degrees. It was a fitting start for our holiday on the Tasman Peninsula, visiting Port Arthur. Our tiny hire car was buffeted by wind and driving rain as we passed the narrow isthmus at Dunalley where 4 years ago on a blustery 40 degree day a family sheltered under the jetty as raging bushfires ravaged their town. The burnt out forest was still in evidence. So much for extremes on the 46th parallel, the same latitude south as Tuscany. Who would have thought? Certainly not the convicts who ended up here in 1830.
We headed on to Ilan’s AirBnB at the Tasman Eco-village in Nubeena. This was our base for the exploration of the convict trails over the next 2 days. Ilan regretfully informed us that his bar, cosy restaurant and spa were no longer functioning so we slunk into our little cabin and put the aircon at full blast, listening all night as the wind howled in protest.
Next morning we drove the last few kilometres to the entrance of Port Arthur and were presented with a 2 day pass, featuring a guided walking tour and a boat trip to Point Puer, the boys prison and the Isle of the Dead! As we waited for Andrew, our guide we marvelled at the autumn colours of the oaks, elms and ashes planted by nostalgic English soldiers 150 years ago.
Andrew informed us that originally Port Arthur was established by the British in 1830, because of its deep harbour and the potential for convicts to log the excellent timber found here. By 1833, however it became a penal colony for the repeat offenders, from all Australian colonies. Needless to say, the Pydairrerme people, the traditional owners of the land might have had other ideas but there is little evidence of their light footprint. We did learn that the penal colony was modelled on Jeremy Bentham’s model penitentiary in Pentonville with the aim of reforming rogues into honest men. This was achieved by discipline and punishment, religion and moral instruction, education and training. No doubt, many poor young men – it was a colony only for men – were better fed, became literate and learned a skilled trade than had they stayed behind in England. However, Pthe punishment meant up to 200 lashes with the Cat’O Nine Tails. If a man passed out or was deemed by the watching medical officer to be unable to stand any more lashes he was transferred to the hospital until he recovered enough to receive the remaining punishment!
Many attempted escape, some even skilled enough to build a boat and row out into the Tasman Sea and get as far as Eaglehawk Neck. Most were re-captured and sent to the Coal Mines. The cells here were about 1.5×1 metre and dark even in the afternoon light, looking far less hospitable than the nooks and burrows of the wild animals we saw on our afternoon visit. Our brochure states that is was not all doom and gloom, as many convicts tended gardens, building, quarrying, splitting timber and learning trades such as blacksmithing.
Our last stop was Eaglehawk Neck, with its fabulous rock formations – the tessalated pavements where the siltstone has weathered more than the surrounding sandstone, forming tiles across the rock shelf; Tasman Arch and Devil’s Kitchen where the relentless sea has undermined the dolomite, resulting in the collapse of the sandstone above; and Remarkable Cave, which promotes the map of Tasmania through its arch!
Eaglehawk Neck is a narrow isthmus of land that originally separated the convict settlement from Hobart. It is literally 2 car widths wide and it is clear the water often washes over the road. In the 1800’s, a Dog Line or chain of vicious dogs was used to prevent convicts from escaping. Names of these dogs included Ugly Mug, Jowler, Tear ‘en and Muzzle ’em and were chained often 18 dogs across the isthmus. You can visit the commandant’s quarters and the semaphore station which was used to communicate between the hills of Port Arthur and Hobart. Inside the commandant’s quarters is a map, which shows the Black Line, used to herd all indigenous Australians onto the Tasman peninsula and was more or less successful in almost wiping out the Tasmanian Aboriginal population. Those who survived were transported to Flinders Island. The beautiful country of those dispossessed people certainly carries a heavy weight of Australia’s brutal colonial past.