How are Australian prisons

The hell of Tasmania

In the Port Arthur Convict Colony

Text and photos: Hilke Maunder

From 1830 Port Arthur was the end of the line for the most dangerous criminals in the British Empire. The toughest prison in the world at the time was considered "Hell on Earth" - today the Unesco World Heritage Site is an ideal starting point to discover the beauty of the Tasmanian Peninsula.

A rainbow spans Carnavon Bay. The sun breaks out from under deep black clouds and makes the ruins shine ocher. From Scorpion Rock your gaze wanders over an extensive park landscape in which picturesque buildings rise - a Westminster-style church, cream-colored cottages and the commandant's house, in front of which mighty cypress trees stand guard.

It is quiet. Terribly quiet. Anyone who spoke to the guards or fellow prisoners ended up in a closet-sized room without a window: solitary confinement for days or weeks, invented 150 years ago in Port Arthur, the most notorious penal colony in the world at the time. More than 12,500 prisoners went through “Hell on Earth” from 1831 to 1853: murderers and fences, but also those who had only stolen a slice of bread. The British knew no mercy. The prisons in the Kingdom were overcrowded, but in the most distant colony of the Empire there was ample room for the “scum” of society.

You don't want to be trapped here

As early as 1840, more than 2000 prisoners and servants were living in the penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsula. It was impossible to escape: an ice-cold, roaring sea, teeming with sharks, crashes onto the steep coast of the peninsula from three sides. A cordon of chain dogs guarded the land bar at Eaglehawk Neck, which is only 100 meters wide. Yet again and again “convicts” dared to flee - one used a wooden bathing trough as a boat, a second wanted to hop past the bloodhounds in a kangaroo costume: 200 desperate attempts have been handed down - and none was successful. Those caught died on the rope that same day.

A dubious model

When the deportations ended in 1853, the complex was converted into a mental hospital and closed in 1877 for cost reasons. In 1895 and 1897, bushfires destroyed many buildings. Of the once more than 60 buildings, 30 have now been restored. Only the visitor center is new. Here, every visitor receives his “Lottery of Life” playing card, with which he can follow the fate of an individual prisoner - from deportation from England to everyday life in Port Arthur.

The idyll was deceptive - at least for the convicts

An elongated, four-story sandstone building became the landmark of Port Arthur: The Penitentiary, a granary and flour mill, converted in 1853 into accommodation for 484 prisoners. Workshops, a Catholic chapel and a library with 13,000 volumes completed the cell wing.

In the "Model Prison" of Port Arthur, England tested a new concept of punishment from 1848: the prisoners were no longer subjected to physical drill, but to total isolation. They lived in tiny cells for 23 hours and were not allowed to speak. During the one-hour “free walk” in chains, masks blocked the view. The worst offenders were locked in pitch-dark cells for days. In the "Asylum" of 1867, the perpetrators who had been psychologically destroyed were kept until their death. Today exhibitions in both buildings report on the cruel living conditions of the prisoners. In addition to prisoner clothing, whips, chains and uniforms, nine-tailed cats can also be seen, a strap whip with nine plaited leather straps, with which the offenders were whipped until they were unconscious.

The island of the dead

Ora et Labora. With hard work and a lot of prayers, the bad guys should be reformed into decent people. Therefore, the Convict Church was built in 1836-1837. However, the neo-Gothic church was never consecrated. The official reason: All religions used the house of God. But in the glow of the lantern, Colin reveals the real reason on the Ghost Tour: While working on the foundation, an inmate murdered a fellow inmate.

Never finished

Most of the prisoners who had to knock stones in chains, build ships or plant vegetables did not survive the stay. They found their final resting place on the Isle of Dead. The M.V. Bundeena over to the island of the dead. Its sole occupant was inmate Mark Jeffrey. The Irishman, famous for his tantrums, had to dig graves day in and day out with a pickaxe and shovel - anonymous, multi-storey mass graves for the prisoners, individual graves with tombstones for the approximately 200 “free citizens”.

The cells of Zechpreller, heavy boys and thieves are now a Unesco World Heritage Site. With the appointment, the "Hell of Tasmania" has changed from a dusty museum to an interactive exhibition - with archaeological excavations for everyone, summer theater, concerts and the very popular Historic Ghost Tours, "ghost" tours in the dark.

Geological curiosities

The next morning seals and dolphins frolic in Mason Cove. While MV Marana is chugging from Port Arthur to Point Puer, where the convicts' 10-18 year old sons were interned from 1834, a Tasmanian Seaplanes seaplane takes off for a sightseeing flight. After panning over the convict colony, the plane hovers over the geological curiosities of the coast. Just north of Eaglehawk Neck, Australia's most unusual “sidewalk” has defied the breakers of the Pacific for more than 200 million years: the Tesselated Pavement, a stone pavement in a checkerboard pattern.

Let's get away from prison

Further south, the sea pushes through the Tasman Blowhole several meters high into the sky, surges through the rock arch "Tasman Arch" and even cooks devilishly in the "Devil's Kitchen" - the surf foams white in the narrow rock basin. High above the steep coast, the hiking trail meanders past the bizarre rock formations until it ends in a crescendo at the southern tip: like organ pipes, narrow rock pillars rise from the surf in front of Cape Pillar. The west coast, on the other hand, is lined with crescent-shaped dream beaches such as White Beach and Roaring Beach.

The Tasmanian Devils Park near Taranna presents the mostly nocturnal animal world of the almost 30 km wide peninsula: bandicoots, rabbit-sized rodents with flute noses, fluffy and lazy wombats, small kangaroos called wallabies and Tasmanian devils. Baring teeth, the robbery hissed at visitors with his shirred teeth.

Travel information about Port Arthur

Getting there:
Qantas flies daily from mainland Australia to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania; further in the rental car (100 km).

Worth seeing:
Port Arthur Historic Site, guided tours / buildings daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. except December 25th, site: 8.30 a.m. - dusk: www.portarthur.org.au
Tasmanian Devil Park, daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Port Arthur Highway, Taranna, www.tasmaniandevilpark.com

Information desk:
Tourism Tasmania: www.discovertasmania.com.au
Tourism Australia, Neue Mainzer Str. 22, 60311 Frankfurt, Tel. 069/27 40 06-0, Fax 069/27 40 06-40 www.australia.com

 

 

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