Monday, February 15, 2010

Tasmania II - Port Arthur Prison Colony

Penitentiary –noun
1. a place for imprisonment, reformatory discipline, or punishment, esp. a prison maintained in the U.S. by a state or the federal government for serious offenders.

Before I visited, the extent of the knowledge that I had was that Australia, in fact, was a British Penal Colony a long time ago.

The reason that Australia became a part of the British Penal system was simple; Britain wanted to colonize. The French and Japanese had their eye on the land what is now Australia. Since England was overcrowded as it was, this was a good move to get the really bad prisoners away from the mainland. This is about the farthest away they could have gotten, and could solidify their position in the territory.

Being a prisoner in Australia wasn't so bad in comparison to their existing lives. At the time, the Irish were in the throes of the Potato Famine, and England was rife with disease and overcrowding. The men were sent to Australia to serve a labour sentence, typically with a family. After that, the prisoner was free, and chances are, didn't return to England. About 75,000 prisoners were transported from Britain to VDL during this time that was simply known as the"transportation period".

Port Arthur ran as a prison station from 1833-ca.1853. This was the camp on the Island of Tasmania (then called Van Diemen's Land) where the worst offenders came to stay. These men and boys (the youngest registered at age 8) were prisoners elsewhere that tried to escape their current conditions, committed murder, or was a repeat offender.

This location is where the word "penitentiary" was introduced as a system of reform. It was a way to rehab prisoners through the involvment of Christianity in the convicts everyday lives. It was also the first modern model of a prison system that we are familiar with - single or double chamber cells for each prisoner who is afforded a few hours a day outside it.

The port was protected by a dog line on the thinnest part of the Tasman Peninsula. Ten vicious dogs (one named Tear 'em) were stationed at Eagleneck, where the dogs served as a barrier to the free land.

Suffering and Conditions

William Smith O'Brien was a famous political prinsoner from Ireland, and a resident at Port Arthur. He was in a revolutionary group that was formed to fight for Ireland's independence from Britain. A journal entry stated, "more like a pretty village placed in a romantic position, than an abode of misery and crime" My sentiments were similar at first sight. Later, after he stayed a while he stated that Port Arthur was "a spot which has probably witnessed more of human suffering than almost any spot of equal size on the globe."

Officer's and their families came to settle here and called this camp home. they followed through with as normal a life as possible. They visited one another, thre parties and had clubs. Meanwhile, the prisoners were buidling ships in the water of the frigid harbor, breaking rock to actually fill in part of the harbor with land, and all the while, not allowed to communicate with other prisoners at any time.

A Pictoral Tour

The old grain house and later a prisoners dormitory. This was the sleeping house before private cells were used. A lot of fighting and conspiring went on under this condition.

A view through the trees to the rocky aqua harbor below

A view to the harbor and grain buidling that later became prisoners quarters. The grassy area that you see was infilled by the prisoners one stone at a time.

This is a view down to the harbor from near the surgeons home, which was also near the post office.

A Garden and gate at Trentham

Close up of a garden at Port Arthur's Trantham house.

Around 1853, the settlement became the solution to the calamity that the prison system itself had created within teh society there. The welfare state started there, and Port Arthur became a home for the insane, and also held what the Aussie's still call paupers. In 1877, it finally closed.

Today, you can take around $25 AUS and visit as well, but for a much shorter and enjoyable time!

Last items of note:

The employees do not dress up in costume so that they will not appear to mock the dead and suffered.

In 1996, a man open fired on the grounds, killing 35 and wounding dozens. He was caught the next day adn imprisoned. Do not ask about this occurance, for they do not wish to speak of it. There is a Memorial Garden to honor the victims of that tragic day.

In 1856, Van Diemen's Land was officially renamed Tasmania and granted self government.

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