Despair in a Beautiful Place

Port Arthur, Tasmania,

I was going to call this post “The English Gulag” because Britain operated a string of penal colonies and labor camps throughout Australia to rid itself of criminals.  Some of the “Convicts” were convicted of, essentially being poor, Irish, desperate to feed their families or because they were political dissidents, often advocates of Irish freedom.  But on reflection I decided that wasn’t fair to the victims of the Soviet Gulag, who had it much worse and lived through a much greater terror.  And some of the convicts made good lives for themselves in Australia.

Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) was, perhaps the most notorious of the penal colonies, and Port Arthur one of the worst of the prisons.  It is set on an absolutely beautiful peninsula, and when we arrived we saw the sunlight on the ruins and had trouble imagining this place having such an evil reputation.  But the clouds rolled in, a rain started to fall and the mood changed. 

In 1830 Port Arthur was established as a logging camp and in 1833 it became a forced labor site for repeat offenders from all the Australian penal colonies.  The colony was based on “Christian” principles of discipline, punishment, moral instruction, isolation (solitary confinement for 23 hours a day where a prisoner could contemplate his sin and do penance, hence the word penitentiary), moral instruction, worship and education in a trade.  Some people came out of the system to lead good lives, many were completely broken, enough so that an insane asylum was added to the mix at Port Arthur.

The officials spread the word that sharks infested the waters and the narrow isthmus leading to the peninsula was patrolled by “vicious” dogs.

The facility functioned until 1877 when the remaining prisoners were removed to Hobart.  The facility became a town, and then bush fires burned through the area leaving ruins.  

When we entered the facility we could draw a card with the name of a convict, and if we wished, we could follow their progress.  Some people drew several cards because their prisoner did not survive long.  My prisoner was an apprentice blacksmith accused and convicted of stealing iron shavings and sentenced to 7 years “transportation.”  He did not fare well in Port Arthur. Suzi’s convict was Irish.  Throughout the visit the song “Fields of Athenry” kept running through my mind.

The ruins of the penitentiary showed us how small the solitary cells were, smaller than a king sized bed.  The ruins of the church were beautiful, and I think prophetic.  The church was never consecrated, it had worshipers of too many denominations.  It burned long before the bush fires took out the prison complex.  Perhaps God was making commentary.



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