Summer is over at last! It was long, and it was hot, and I can’t wait to mothball my shorts and t-shirts and don boots and scarves and gloves once more.
But it was a good summer. Part of it was spent on holiday in Tasmania, “glamping” with the family through the island’s pristine northwestern wilderness (hiking and canoeing, spying Tasmanian Devils and wombats, no phone, no internet, no TV – bliss!)
And it wouldn’t have been a complete holiday if we didn’t soak up a bit of history, which we did at the penal settlement of Port Arthur.
Port Arthur operated as a prison from 1830 to 1877, housing repeat offenders sentenced to transportation from England for crimes that today seem so very trivial: stealing small livestock, clothing, loaves of bread. We spent the day exploring the sprawling prison settlement in the idyllic surrounds of vast green lawns cooled by an ocean breeze. Buildings such as the Commandant’s House are still standing; others, like the convict-built church and the Penitentiary that housed nearly 500 prisoners, are just skeletal ruins.
Ruins of the convict-built church
The day was gorgeous – a clear blue sky, the warmth of a golden sun on our backs, the tranquility of the surrounding bushland …and the juxtaposition of Port Arthur’s beauty with the incredible suffering that occurred there could not have been more stark.
To my mind, the worst of Port Arthur’s misery was handed out in the Separate Prison.
The Separate Prison was effectively a prison within a prison, with a regime of silent, solitary confinement. Every man who arrived at Port Arthur spent a certain amount of time there based on his original sentence, and those who later reoffended at Port Arthur would be sent back in for more of its punishing system of social and sensory deprivation.
Twenty-three hours a day locked in cells with walls and doors so thick that no noise could penetrate. Exercise taken alone in narrow yards that afforded a glimpse of the sky and nothing more. Warders who walked the halls in felt slippers and communicated in sign language so inmates would hear no sound. Prisoners forced to wear masks when outside their cells to ensure they did not speak. The solitary confinement even extended to the prison chapel, where prisoners stood in coffin-like cubicles that entirely cut them off from one another.
Corridor and cell doors of the Separate Prison
There was a theory of sorts behind this cruelty: that silence and isolation would force inmates to “look inwards” and repent their crimes. But the resultant psychological torment was so bad many men simply broke. And despite the concerns of prison chaplains and medical officers, the response was simply to build an Asylum for these poor souls, right next door to the Separate Prison. Once they were deemed sufficiently cured, they were returned to the Separate Prison to start the process of losing their sanity all over again.
Escape attempts were not uncommon. Nor were suicides. There are even stories of prisoners forming pacts to end their combined misery, whereby one prisoner would agree to kill the other, with the survivor then hanging for the crime, thus releasing both from their living hell.
Our day at Port Arthur extended into the evening, when we went on a “Ghost Tour” by lantern light. Walking through the shells of these old buildings in the dead of night was incredibly eerie.
The ruins of the church at night
Over a thousand people died at Port Arthur during its 47 year history, and our tour guide regaled us with many tales of unexplained incidents and hauntings. Unsurprisingly, the most chilling tale for me involved the Separate Prison.
On two separate occasions, several years apart, a man (a tourist) and later, a woman (an archaeologist working at Port Arthur on a dig) went missing. The alarm was raised, the settlement was searched and on both occasions the missing person was eventually located.
This is where it gets creepy.
In each instance, the missing person was found in the Separate Prison, lying on the floor of a cell in the foetal position. Both were in some sort of dissociative state, sobbing and babbling incomprehensibly. Both snapped out of this strange state soon after their discovery, but neither could remember how they’d got there, and both thought they’d wandered off for only a few minutes when in fact they’d been missing for several hours. Neither could remember what had happened to them, but both felt a profound and overwhelming sense of despair.
And both were found in the exact same cell.
Cell number six, if memory serves. After the last incident, it was permanently boarded up.
Our tour guide that night said something about Port Arthur that has stuck with me ever since:
“No one who was here ever wanted to be here”.
Not the convicts. Not the prison officials and military men who were given no choice in their posting. Not their wives and children who accompanied them.
The prison closed 139 years ago, but the suffering and the utter misery of the place is still so overwhelmingly palpable, like it has seeped into the very walls. Remembering the terrible shooting massacre that occurred at Port Arthur in 1996 makes for an even more sombre experience. I’m glad my husband was there to take photos, for I found I couldn’t bring myself to take a single “happy snap”.
Still. Port Arthur is a place that must definitely be seen. It is hauntingly beautiful. And it serves as a quiet, permanent warning of how just cruel humanity can be.