Thursday, July 2, 2009

Happy Canada Day, welcome to hell

I'm not quite sure whether we were to mark Canada Day on July 1 or 2. We didn't do either, really, but we thought about Canada on both days so perhaps that counts.

On the evening of the 1st, when folks in Bracebridge were just waking up to find paper Canadian flags dotted on their lawns, we were taking a walking tour of the Hobart waterfront. On the morning of the 2nd, when the crowds were just starting to gather for the Canada Day fireworks at Bracebridge Bay, we were arriving at the most brutal of all Australia's penal colonies, Port Arthur, a place that was often described as hell on earth.

Naturally there are Canadian connections to be found all over, if you want to look for them. The governor of Tasmania at one time was John Franklin, who is best known in Canada for his failed attempt to find the northwest passage (our tour guide on the waterfront told me his favourite song of all time was Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers); Port Arthur was named for the same person as Port Arthur, Ontario (now known as Thunder Bay); there's a building called Canadian Cottage on the site, a mail-order prefab building that came from Canada in the early 1900s; following the failed 1839 rebellion, several of Les Patriotes were sent from Canada to serve their sentence in Port Arthur; and on it goes.

Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a fascinating site. If you were a common criminal in England in the early 1800s, you were sent to Botany Bay or Van Diemen's Land (Sydney or Tasmania). If you re-offended, you were sent to Port Arthur. It was a model prison, in many ways, because the focus was on rehabilitation rather than just warehousing and punishing. Unfortunately for the inmates, part of rehabiliation in those days was punishment. Hard labour was just the start of it. If you offended within the prison -- talking back, failing to show up for duty, etc. -- you were given the lash. But by the 1840s they realized lashing was just hardening the convicts, so they came up with another method of breaking a man. They built a place called the Separate Prison, where you were kept in sensory deprivation. No noise was allowed, and you were known by the number of your cell rather than your name. You stayed in your cell 23 hours a day, and were allowed one hour of solitary exercise during which you had to wear a hood. If you violated those rules, you were put in the punishment cell, kept in total darkness with metre-thick walls.

Not surprisingly, the lunatic asylum was located next door.

And forget escaping from this prison. Even though there were no fences around Port Arthur, the woods were thick, the water cold. It's located at the end of a peninsula that's connected to the main part of the island at two points by necks of land that are no more than 200 metres wide. At one of them the British stationed The Dog Line, a line of half-starved dogs that were chained along the width of the land.

The site was home to more than 2000 people at its height -- not just prisoners, but guards and their families, and boys living in a special prison across the bay. There were massive sandstone buildings all around the site, including a church that could seat a thousand. The prison closed in the 1850s, and the site was renamed Carnarvon and sold off for private homes. It was so notorious, though, that tourists started coming almost immediately, and the old lags found they could make a good living by giving guided tours. They also found their tips were better if they made the stories a bit more dramatic than they really had been. Naturally they played up the brutality, showing their scars and telling tales about how sadistic the guards were. Apparently in the world of tourism, some things never change!

Many of the buildings were destroyed in bush fires, but the site has been partly restored. We spent a full day there, and still didn't see it all. Fascinating.

Today we're going to brace the elements of Hobart harbour, going sailing on a tall ship for a three hour tour. Better pull on our woolies!


Dave C said...

Interesting stuff, Andrew. Makes me think that Canada's current court system could learn something from the Aussies. Sentence them to a period of sensory deprivation instead of supplying them with all the comforts of home, which instills a sense of wanting those conforts all the time. However the easiest way to achieve those comforts is by beating up little old ladies or breaking in to houses to obtain the wherwithall.... etc. etc. Honestly I am just being a bit cynical today. I don't really believe what I just wrote.

Andrew said...

Unfortunately, it would appear that most of those who went through Port Arthur came out just as likely to offend as when they went in. Apart from those who ended up as babbling loonies in the asylum, of course! It was truly remarkable to hear about people who were sent back there two or three times for committing various offences after they'd served their time.
Of course, when you consider what life was like for the typical Australian (or Brit, for that matter) in the 1830s, maybe Port Arthur wasn't all that bad after all. Even Dickins would have found living conditions to be Dickensian. At least in Port Arthur you got three meals to enjoy in your 1.3 by 2.2 metre cell!