When Australia and Tasmania were prison colonies of England, Port Arthur was the place of last resort for repeat offenders, basically the worst of the worst.
In order to help modern people understand the tiniest bit what it was like, each person was handed a card at entry. In an exhibit in the main hall, the card led you through one specific person’s journey to Port Arthur and what it was like when they arrived.
My card, the 8 of diamonds, corresponded to John Clark, a 19-year-old laborer who was sent to Tasmania for stealing in England. He was accused of stealing again in Tasmania and was found innocent, but Governor Arthur, the governor of Tasmania, sent him to Port Arthur anyway. There he was put into a logging gang. The work was already grueling enough, but he was found in possession of a knife and then had to log while wearing leg irons.
This whole idea and experience really humanized the whole thing and made it much more accessible to comprehend.
Port Arthur is located out on the Tasman Peninsula, where it would be very difficult for prisoners to escape. Their only choices were to swim, basically impossible due to the condition of the water and the length to any safe land, or to try to cross at Eaglehawk Neck. That strip of land is so thin that a row of half-starved dogs was chained across it, which made it impenetrable.
The prisoners here were assigned all types of tasks: constructing buildings, building ships, logging, even manning a human-pulled trolley system up and down the peninsula.
The commandants house sat on top of a hill right near the waterfront, so he could see all the goings on of the prison. His house was, of course, lavishly furnished, while the stone quarters of the prisoners were small, dark, and damp.
For the even worse offenders, there was a special separatist prison on the site. Based on the Eastern State Penitentiary, near Pennsylvania, and much like Lincoln Prison, in England, inmates were in solitude in their cells for 23 hours a day. The one hour they were out of their cells was used for exercise and church, during which they wore hoods over their heads.
The chapel they attended has alcoves for each prisoner separated by thick doors. The only thing they could see from inside was the pulpit.
Further offenses from the separatist prison would land a prisoner in the punishment cell, a minuscule pitch-black stone room, for what could be days on end.
It was hard to think of Port Arthur as a prison when the landscapes were so lovely there. Even the shell of the old prisoners’ church added to the beauty of the place.