It’s a common joke that Australia was settled by criminals, is run by criminals, and that its heroes are criminals. Ergo Punishing Port Arthur.
But while most of the continent has shaken loose the shackles of its shady past, Port Arthur, on the southern island of Tasmania, has been proud to retain and proclaim its chains, its history, and its legacy.
Since it was founded as a penal colony for nefarious Brits way back in 1833, Port Arthur has thoroughly embraced its legacy to the extent that not only does the former prison serve as Tasmania’s main tourist attraction, but it’s also a conservation site.
The prison forms part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property, and after construction, was renowned worldwide as the most brutal colonial prison in the British Empire.
Unlike other Australian prisons, where prisoners would be regularly whipped for infractions of the rules, inmates at Port Arthur were psychologically tortured instead. One common method of punishment involved prisoners being hooded and made to stay silent. It was the Guantanamo Bay of its era, and as a consequence, a high proportion of inmates eventually went insane.
The wretchedness of prisoners’ lives is recreated twice daily at the Penitentiary between April 18 and April 25, with history plays such as, “The Man Who Threw a Stone” and “A Boyís Life,” telling heart≠rending, action packed tales of hunger strikes, transportation, and redemption. Family friendly activities include making convict bricks, designing wallpaper, and whittling peg dolls.
The site comprises a number of separate and historically important locations. In addition to the penitentiary itself, which comprises cells, a mess room, library, Catholic chapel, workshops and ablutions complex, there is also the model prison, where psychological punishments were carried out in the hope that a solitary life lived in silence would lead to genuine reformation.
At the nearby Coal Mines historic site, visitors can get a feel of what it was like for the hundreds of Britain’s worst and most dangerous criminals as they slaved underground in the pitch black shafts, and served their time at the coal face.
And if you venture down to what was once the busiest dockyard site in Australia, you’ll see a 25 metre long ship sculpture by local artists which is built in memory of the whaleboats and schooners which used to be constructed on the site and which now lies empty
Night-time ghost tours can be taken through the complex’s ruins, and if you’re feeling particularly brave, then consider boarding a ferry to the nearby ‘Isle of the Dead,’ where 1,800 convicts were laid to rest after dying in the penal colony.
Prisoners are no longer held in Port Arthur, so if you want a taste of genuine convict life in 21st Century Tasmania, you’ll have to travel 60 miles by road to the notoriously brutal and bleak Risdon Prison Complex at Risdon Vale. If nothing else, Risdon is the spiritual successor of Port Arthur. It has a reputation for rioting, arbitrary rules, prisoner deaths, and was described in 2001 by the Tasmanian Ombudsman as being, “a particularly unpleasant place… bleak, cold and grey.”
Both contact and non-contact visiting is permitted, although booking by telephone is essential, and there are some fairly heavy security procedures to negotiate.
If reliving the misery, captivity, madness and servitude of the long dead damned isn’t your thing, then Port Arthur and the surrounding area have many more attractions for the discerning holiday maker. There are the isolated beaches, stunning rock formations, and some remarkable cave systems including the imaginatively named ‘Remarkable Cave, ‘ which splits into two separate tunnels leading out into the sea.
On a fittingly grim note, in April 1996, Port Arthur gained the dubious honour of being the site of the deadliest shooting committed by a single person in the English speaking world when 28 year old Martin Bryant killed 35 people, and wounded 23 more with an array of knives, shotguns and automatic weaponry. Bryant was sentenced to 35 life sentences without possibility of parole, to be served at Risdon. You can visit him.
Other notorious former inmates included Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, who terrorized Tasmania, and Australia as a whole from the 1970s to the 1990s. It was in Risdon that he cut his own ears off as a bet.
Believe it or not, Tasmania isn’t right next to Australia in the same way England is right next to France. At its closest point, the island is 150 miles from the Australian coast, and this means that unless you’re a shark punching superman, you’re not going to be able to swim across the Tasman Sea to Port Arthur. Planes run on a scheduled service between Hobart International Airport and many Australian and international locations and there’s also a boat, which runs regularly between Melbourne and Devonport.
Once you reach Port Arthur, there of dozens of three and four star hotels to stay at, in addition to an array of cottages, beach houses, and retreats.