Port Arthur, 43:09.2S, 147:51.1E

Serenity of Swanwick
Phil and Sarah Tadd
Sun 12 Feb 2023 23:42

We used our days in Hobart with the car to make sure we were fully provisioned and with full gas bottles, then on the Saturday we had a nice lunch in Bellerive with an OCC contact, Jeremy, and his partner Penny.  They were an inspirational couple who had sailed round Cape Horn and to high latitudes in a boat that Jeremy fitted out from a bare hull himself, with high latitude sailing in mind.

We were beginning to think of the return trip across Bass Strait and wanted to be on the East Coast ready for the right weather, but first we wanted to visit Port Arthur.  Port Arthur was another secondary detention facility, like Sarah Island that we visited in MacQuarie Harbour, where repeat offenders were sent in the hope that the harsh conditions would cause them to see the error of their ways.  It is on the Tasman Peninsula to the south east of Hobart, connected to the main island by a narrow, easily guarded, strip of land called Eaglehawk neck. 

We left the marina on Monday morning and anchored off the north end of North Bruny Island for two nights while we waited for a strong south easterly to die down.  We had good shelter from the wind, but on the second night a swell found its way into the bay making it quite uncomfortable.  On Wednesday the wind eased and we got away having a pleasant, if cold, sail for the 21 miles to Cape Raoul, the most southerly point of the Tasman Peninsula.  Then the wind died and the sea got confused as it bounced back from the cliffs so we were glad when we finally got into the shelter of Port Arthur.  But the scenery was superb, with the cliffs of Cape Raoul rising to over 700 meters and the basalt columns looking like massive organ pipes.

Dressed in full winter sailing gear, despite it being summer in Australia!

Cape Raoul.  Photos can’t capture the full scale of the cliffs

We dropped anchor in Stewart Bay, which would give us protection from the forecast northerly winds and was just a short dinghy ride from the historic site.  Luckily we decided to wait until the next day to buy our tickets on-line as we woke to find the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth had arrived.  We didn’t need to compete for space with its 2,000+ passengers!  Instead we had a walk on the Stewart Bay track then returned to watch the comings and goings from the cruise ship.

The Queen Elizabeth

With a southerly change, we moved anchorage the next day before finally going ashore at the historic site.  Port Arthur was set up in 1830 as a camp supplying timber to the government using convict labour.  In 1833 it became a secondary penitentiary to punish repeat offenders from across Australia.  Its philosophy was to use discipline, punishment, religious  and moral instruction, training and education as a means to reform.  It seems that some were reformed, others completely broken and others returned more than once as they continued to offend.  It finally closed in 1877 after the end of transportation.  Soon after that many of the buildings were destroyed in bush fires so only a fraction of the original buildings remain.

The Penitentiary building dominated the waterfront and was built by convict labour.  We had an excellent guide to this building, which was originally a flour mill that failed due to bad planning (not enough water flow to operate the waterwheel)  even using convict labour on a treadmill failed to make it work.  It had individual cells on the first 2 floors housing the worst offenders.  Those wearing the heaviest chains were on the ground floor and those with lighter chains were on the second.  The top floor was a dormitory for about 350 men sleeping in basic bunks.

The remains of the ground floor cells

Also built by convict labour was the multi-denominational church.  Our guide to this building told a story that highlighted the harshness of the regime.  There were 3 deaths among the convicts working on the construction: 2 were industrial accidents, but in the third case one convict was murdered by another, apparently because being sent to the gallows for a really serious crime was the most certain means of escape.

The church

While the prisoners lived under harsh conditions the military and civilian staff and families lived lives as close to normal as possible with pleasant houses, gardens, and regular social activities

The Commandant’s House was on a rise overlooking the harbour and was extended by successive occupants

The formal Government Gardens led down to the sea from the Government Cottage (used to accommodate visiting officials).  I wonder what the penalty was for a convict caught in the garden?

By chance, the last stop of our tour was the Separate Prison, which we found horrific.  Built in 1849 it was supposed to be  a different way of reforming prisoners than the hard labour and harsh punishments.  Reform would come from quiet contemplation and meaningful work.  What this meant in practice was that they were locked in single cells, where they worked, slept and ate, for 23 hours a day.  One hour a day was allowed for solitary exercise in a walled yard.  They were not allowed to speak, and were referred to by their cell number.  Its no wonder the Asylum was built next door.

The outside of the Solitary Prison

Inside a cell

In the chapel the prisoners stood throughout the service in their numbered stall.  You can just see
a head in one.

Many of those transported to Australia were children, and the first purpose-built juvenile reformatory was built at Point Puer, on a headland opposite Port Arthur.  Because most of the buildings are complete ruins it isn’t open to the public, but we walked out to the headland the following day.  The philosophy here was the same as the adult prison: stern discipline and harsh punishment, though there may have been some attempt at education and skills training: the boys did some of the stone carving for the church.

We left the site with lots to think about and process.  Altogether a salutary reminder of one of the nastier periods in British History.

We spent a further day and night anchored in Ladies Bay (presumably where the ladies could enjoy the waterside away from convict eyes) well protected from a southerly gale, before making our escape.