Recently I spent a week in Tasmania. Tasmania looks a lot like New Zealand, except the bush is a different shade of green – more olive-green and ancient-looking than the fresh vibrant green of the New Zealand bush. The coffee is worse and the buildings are better. Tasmania has older and more substantial buildings than anything you’d find in New Zealand. The very oldest buildings are Georgian and many of them look as if they could have come from prosperous towns and villages in England, except for their tin roofs. I lose my bearings easily these days from too much uprooting. Tasmania’s like-ness to the countries I call, or have called, home, and un-likeness to my idea of Australia was all quite disorientating and I had to keep reminding myself where I was and where I had come from.
Tasmania’s elegantly symmetrical Georgian buildings look English because they were built by English stone-masons, convicts mostly, shipped to Tasmania often for crimes that would in many cases be considered trivial by today’s standards.
Convicts built Tasmania’s first buildings, bridges and roads. They were also sent to farms established by the first settlers, where they provided free labour. Often the convicts earnt their freedom through good behaviour and some even went on to prosper in Tasmania or elsewhere in Australia. Convicts who reoffended were brutally punished. Penal stations – prisons within the prison that was Tasmania – were set up to deal with repeat offenders. The best known and best preserved of these penal stations is Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula on Tasmania’s south east coast.
Calling it the Tasman Peninsula probably made sense when Tasmania was still called Van Diemen’s Land, but now the name suggests that you might find the whole of Tasmania somewhere off the end of it, or maybe that it is, in some way, the essence of Tasmania. It is in fact a small finger of land in a remote corner of the island, almost an island, or rather two islands, barely attached to each other and to the rest of Tasmania by two narrow isthmuses of land.
We had under-estimated our travel time and arrived there as it was starting to get dark, crossing the first isthmus and following a winding road through forest that was regenerating after fire. The hearts of the trees, dark with new growth, were haloed with the ghostly grey of bare branches. There was water around every bend in the road, little bays and estuaries, reflecting the evening light.
Then we crossed the second isthmus, Eaglehawk Neck, a narrow stretch of road flanked on either side by beaches. In convict times, Eaglehawk Neck, was heavily guarded by soldiers and a line of ferocious dogs known as the ‘dogline’. Each dog was chained up next to a lamp-post and a barrel that served as a kennel. Some of the dogs were kept on floating platforms in the bays, to deter swimming convicts. A system of semaphore stations would alert the military guard stationed there of escapees.
There is a repulsive brutality in the concept of the dogline – not just in the treatment of the convicts, nor even in how the dogs must have been treated to keep them savage, but also in the reminder of the infamous Black Line – the line of soldiers and settlers that swept Tasmania in 1830 with the intention of rounding up the last of the aboriginal population and removing them from the island, an episode that beggars your belief the first time you hear about it. The Tasman Peninsula was the end point on the Black Line, before the days of the penal station and the dogline. The aim was to round up the aboriginal people onto the Tasman Peninsula and hold them there by closing off Eaglehawk Neck (the Black Line failed in this objective although it was instrumental in the eventual removal of the aboriginal population from Tasmania). And you can’t help but think of Cerberus, the many-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the underworld in Greek mythology. With that, and all the water, there’s a sense of otherness, of heading into another realm.
By the time we reached the small settlement of Taranna, the end point of Australia’s first railway (powered by convicts rather than steam), it was almost completely dark and we struggled to find the place where we were staying.
The next day, we went to Port Arthur. We were following in a long tourist tradition. Almost as soon as the prison closed in 1877, the cottages where the soldiers and civilians lived with their families were opened as guest houses for tourists to visit the ruins of the prison buildings, and listen to often exaggerated tales of brutality and depravity. Nowadays the interpretation of the site is more measured and based on historical research, although the facts are themselves quite dark enough.
Too recent for interpretation is the murder of 35 people here by a lone gunman in 1996. The dead are discreetly remembered in a memorial garden in the shell of the site’s café.
The Port Arthur site is huge and we spent the whole day looking round the prison buildings, some of which are in ruins, and the restored cottages. Places of past darkness often hold some kind of residue, but to start with, the experience of wandering round a vast heritage site within neatly tended grounds reminded me more of visiting a National Trust stately home in the UK. The penitentiary ruins, if you didn’t know that men were kept in the remains of the tiny cells, could have been the ruins of any large-scale industrial building. The neat cottages enclosed by low fences with the bush in the background were like one of those naïve paintings of an early colonial settlement come to life.
The neatness of the prison settlement reflected the orderliness and control of prison life. There were strict hierarchies of convicts within the prison, with different cells, work and even uniforms depending on their behaviour, and convicts were subject to unremitting surveillance. Over time, the punishments meted out to convicts changed from floggings and other physical punishments to psychological regimes intended to rehabilitate, inspired by prison reform movements in the United States and England. A ‘Separate Prison’, another prison within the prison, was created for holding prisoners in a solitary confinement regime that would constitute torture by today’s standards. Prisoners were locked up in isolation for 23 hours a day, were hooded when they left their cells so that no one could recognize them, were referred to by number and never by name, were forbidden from uttering any sound except for prayer and singing in the chapel, where their seats prevented them seeing their fellow prisoners. You’re encouraged to be silent in the restored Separate Prison building, and to listen to recordings of the noises that prisoners would have heard as you walk along the long white-painted corridors, peering into the white- painted cells, just large enough for the prisoners to carry out solitary work. The idea was that in the silence, the prisoners would reflect on their evil deeds and repent. But it’s hard to see the separation block as anything other than punishment. Prisoners unbroken by physical punishment often snapped under the psychological strain, and moved across to the asylum building next door.
The separation block is circular, and prisoners exercised alone in wedge shaped yards arranged like the segments of an orange separated by high brick walls. While most of the separation block is intact, the walls of the exercise yards are in ruins. Looking up at the expanse of blue sky exposed by the fallen walls felt like a liberation.
If there is darkness in Port Arthur, it is in the white spaces of the separation block. But also, it struck me as I emerged back out into the blinding brightness of the afternoon that the darkness lay in the neatness of the site, in the cottages that felt far colder inside than outdoors, and the fences enclosing tidy gardens and closing out the bush. Port Arthur was built to contain and isolate the evil that was perceived in the convict prisoners, but the convicts themselves were civilisation’s weapon against untamed wilderness, against nature, and against the ‘untamed’ people who lived there first. The imposition of order was itself a brutality, a denial of a world that was other to Anglo-Saxon conceptions of social order, morality and ‘progress’.
We took a boat trip out on the harbour to the ‘Isle of the Dead’, a small island that served as a burial ground. On the way, a guide told stories of mostly failed escape attempts to get past the dogline. On the island, another guide talked about a different kind of escape, convicts who made pacts with other convicts for one to murder the other so that the murderer could be hanged.
The next day we went to visit the remains of the convict coal mines, in the north west of the peninsula. The coal mines were a lower circle of hell, where the very ‘worst class’ of prisoners were sent to labour in darkness, digging by hand or dragging coal carts in harness with other men. The day was bright and clear again, and the walk around the ruined remains of the coal mine site was through bush where birds flitted and sang, and we could see out across the sparkling waters of the bay. There is not much to see of the mines themselves, just a huge fenced-off hole in the ground like a bomb crater, but there are numerous ruined buildings around the site, some built of substantial stone blocks, while others were built of convict-made bricks which are scattered across the sites where buildings stood. In a corner of the main settlement, you come to a yet deeper level of hell, where the worst of the worst prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, two corridors of tiny brick cells. The cells are freezing cold and damp even on a warm morning, and almost completely dark. It is impossible even to imagine the horrors of being shut away down here.
That afternoon we drove along a pitted dirt road through an endless forest of tall slender gum trees to a small beach of pale sand. We took a path out along a headland through undulating forest, further and further until the trees stopped and we were walking through low compact bushes with white flowers that looked like New Zealand hebes, the sea on either side, and islands in the distance. The undulations grew steeper and the path became more steps than path, long flights of rustic sandstone steps that looked newly built but also as if they could have been the remains of an ancient civilization. On either side, steep basalt-columned cliffs fell away to blue foaming seas that crashed and surged around stacks and pillars, and boomed into sea-caves, tugging at the fringes of kelp anchored along the bottom of the cliffs. At the very end we sat on sun-warmed rocks, secure in the spring sunlight and the freedom of being up high and surrounded, completely surrounded, by light.