Property 1306 – Australian Convict Sites (Port Arthur)
Foreigners often think that Australians are embarrassed about the country’s convict heritage. This seems to be particularly true of Americans for some reason, perhaps to do with that culture’s national obsession with incarceration. As an Australian, finding out that one has a convict in one’s ancestry is almost a cause for celebration. It’s kind of a vindication of one’s Australian-ness, or perhaps it’s a link with the dusty history classes that we endured in school. Either way, being descended from a convict is no shame.
This goes some way to explaining why the Australian Convict Sites are presented by the local authorities as historical parks and publicised as tourist attractions rather than hidden away. The UNESCO property incorporates a number of different site across the country, but Port Arthur is probably the most interesting and dramatic of them, having been extensively redeveloped as a boutique holiday destination. It’s beautiful now, but 44 years of the most savage penal servitude lies just under the surface.
Much as Australia was originally colonised by Britain as a way to get rid of the undesirable criminal underclass, Port Arthur was developed as a secondary penal colony; that is to say it was intended to house those who reoffended after arriving in Australia. Many of those were probably just poor people trying to stay alive, but who had run afoul of the authorities.
The original aim of Port Arthur was as a kind of 19th century “supermax” prison facility, and the prevailing ideology of imprisonment was similarly extreme. It was intended to be impossible to escape from. Situated on a peninsula and surrounded by water on three sides, the landward boundary was heavily guarded. Prisoners were sometimes hooded and kept silent, similar to modern solitary confinement. Life was unremittingly harsh, food was minimal, punishments were severe, and Tasmania in winter is horribly cold. Prisoners were made to work at timber cutting, stonemasonry and other dangerous jobs as a way of earning their keep.
Despite this horror, the site itself is rather beautiful. The peninsula itself is verdant (especially in warm weather) and has peaceful paths and rolling green lawns. The plentiful supply of labour and lax safety standards in the convict period allowed the construction of a soaring gothic church and some buildings in lovely yellow sandstone. The blue-grey of the Tasmanian bush is a stunning contrast with the very civilised built environment.
The irony of the registration of the Australian Convict Sites on the World Heritage register is that the British experiment in penal transportation was a mixed success at best. It didn’t really do anything about crime in Britain (largely the result of poverty), but it was effective in allowing British colonisation of Australia with what was effectively slave labour. Australia was a pretty grim environment for British colonists in the early years, and I imagine that volunteer colonists would have been few and far between.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention the other reason that Port Arthur is famous. In 1996 a mentally disturbed young man murdered 35 people with semi-automatic weapons. The massacre shocked the country and the government acted by tightening up the country’s already strict firearm laws. The massacre was horrific but I am proud as an Australian that the entire country came together and acted to prevent future slaughter. As an act of justice, it could not be further away from the enslavement of the poor that began the history of Port Arthur.