South for the Winter Part 3: Port Arthur

Here is another excerpt from my Tasmanian travelogue, this one recounting my trip down to the infamous Port Arthur convict prison.

There is light drizzle as I approach the Port Arthur Historical Site and, in the dimmer light in the forest which I am driving through, I turn on my headlights. When I arrive, however, the sun is out, or looks like it might be out in a few moments, so I leave my raincoat in the car and head into the site.

The first part of the package I buy for the day – the “Bronze Pass”, it’s called – is an introductory tour with a guide in a black spray jacket and polarfleece beret that makes him look like an ageing bohemian camper. I have a momentary thought as the tour begins that perhaps I left my headlights on, and, with no way of checking for the next forty-five minutes, it plays on my mind as our guide gives us a survey of developments in the British prison system and Port Arthur’s origins in the prison reforms started by Jeremy Bentham and his “panopticon”. Some of what we are told I already know and so my mind wanders from time to time, dredging up memories from a second-year Literature course entitled “Australia and the Colonial Imaginary”, in which our study of Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life, available at all tourist shops and bookstores around Tasmania, took us on a journey through the Enlightenment-era origins of the now clichéd “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Port Arthur, it seems, inhabited a strange place in the development of thinking on the subject. The emphasis in modern prison systems on rehabilitation seems to stem from a belief that humans are not innately criminal or otherwise but are victims of environment and circumstance. Prison, the logic then goes, should not punish the individual, rather give him or her a chance to reform. Port Arthur did both. It taught trades and served as a kind of last change for the most hardened or “incurable” of criminal cases; and yet they were also punished, often brutally – the whip of choice here at this “secondary punishment” prison was the so-called “full cat-o’-nine-tails”, that is, a whip of nine strands each containing eighty-one knots digging into the back. Convicts who were whipped publically for “absconding” or the like needed, as a point of pride and honour, to show no pain while being whipped, all wanting to prove a “pebble” – a small, hard, unbreakable rock in the shoes of the prison powers – rather than “sandstone” which crumbles under pressure.

And so punishment failed, in most cases, to reform its already hardened recipients. Were they, I wonder, better helped by the church services they were required to attend, the old bells of which we hear, in recorded form, punctuating the tour guide’s commentary? Did the solitary confinement inflicted on them to enforce quiet contemplation of their sins help any more? Neither of these questions can be answered on today’s tour, and so, in between shifts of location and new facts about the site’s history, along with momentary attempts to remember whether or not I did turn off my headlights, I am left pondering the merits of a prison system which, in its swings between the punitive justice of Victor Hugo’s Javert and a permissive version of Bentham, has never really mastered the tension between justice and grace which the God of the Bible seems to hold together as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Of course, my philosophical musings are regularly cut short by the feeling that I should in fact be paying attention to what the tour guide is telling us; and then I continually find my mind returning to my headlights and scanning ahead to a potential future whereby I am stranded here until the RACT can come to give me a jump-start. How long, I wonder, would it take them to make it out to Port Arthur? Will they come out to me, a Victorian and therefore not a member? The sun goes down in my mind and I am still here, unable to drive home. How long is it before the ghosts come out? Which would arrive first, the RACT or the ghosts? Meanwhile the tour goes, rain coming and going with it while we are told stories of escaped convicts dying from dehydration or cold, being killed by the Eaglehawk Neck “dogline” – a long “line” of vicious hounds spread out in a manner designed to stand in the way of a popular escape route – or choosing to return, tail between iron-bound legs, to avoid such a fate; and these stories set me thinking, as I trudge on with my tour-group through rapidly softening soil, that perhaps my fears of being stuck here with a flat battery are not the worst things that could happen, or have happened, to people who come here.

Fortunately, it all proves academic. When the tour finishes and I am able to duck to my car, I find that I had remembered to turn off my headlights after all. Now armed with a raincoat and gloves, I am free to enjoy the site in dryness and without worries of a flat battery.

The place opens up for me, seeming less and less like the prison that it had potentially become for me, and I find myself looking at it with more open eyes. What perhaps nothing can quite prepare you for here is the sheer beauty of the place, especially in Winter. Regular rain, much of which falls while I am here, has softened the features to a delicate lushness reminiscent of the kind of English village which much of this place was set up to recreate, and the ruins, set amidst verdant hills, make the place look like the closest thing Australia has to a Stonehenge or a Bath. A prison with no need of walls, the place feels now far from a prison, just as, when it gets too wet and I decide to take refuge inside with a hot drink and this journal, the café where the 1996 massacre occurred now feels the safest and most comfortable place to be. I wonder: did any of the convicts, as they worked felling trees or building houses, ever look out on this place and see the beauty in it which is all too apparent today? Did they ever listen to the church-bells and hear chimes of freedom not of judgment? I cannot tell. But the extremes in the weather which I have witnessed today – now sunny, now cloudy and wintry in the sudden rain-fall – give me some sense of what, apart from the sheer isolation of the place, may have been its greatest source of punishment to the convicts and pioneers who lived here. “Damn Demon’s Land”, the prison-guards ironically called it. Too beautiful, surely, to be called that – but I have a car and a warm home to return to, and can leave now before it becomes dark and takes on the illusion at least of being haunted. There has been much pain here, some of it in my lifetime, which I cannot even begin to imagine as I sit innocently here.

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