Visitors Prowl a Historic Prison

Tourists in Tasmania use their imagination to recapture the lives of convicts long ago

AT Port Arthur, Tasmania, graceful trees shade wide expanses of lawn, and brick ruins overlook pleasure boats bobbing in the small harbor. With such a serene atmosphere, it's hard to imagine its sorry days in the 1800s as a prison for transported British convicts.

Yet Port Arthur, one of Tasmania's prime tourist attractions, is the preeminent symbol of Australia's convict heritage. The historic site is not a recreation of the prison, with guides dressed in period costumes, speaking cockney. Because fire destroyed most of the buildings, all that's left in many cases are brick shells, though a few surviving buildings have period furniture.

Much is left to your imagination, which is fueled by heaps of information: free guided tours, descriptions at the site of the former dormitory, films and videos, and a museum and visitors' center housed in the former asylum. There you can see the yellow-and-brown heavy woolen uniforms worn summer and winter, and shoes made by the convicts. (Reportedly, they were of better quality than imported shoes.)

Exploring all that Port Arthur has to offer takes several hours, although a clever, tiny folded map given at the entrance marks one-, two-, and three-hour walks. The site, on 100 hilly acres, comprises 49 buildings or ruins of buildings.

A free harbor cruise includes the Pt. Peur boys' prison, Isle of the Dead (the cemetery), ship-building dockyard, and Port Arthur Harbour.

With the loss of America as a place to send convicts, England turned to Australia: first Sydney; then, in the 1830s, what was known as Van Diemen's land (now Tasmania).

Port Arthur must have seemed ideal for a prison. Surrounded by frigid, shark-infested waters (or so convicts were told), it was at the end of a narrow isthmus, where ferocious dogs deterred escapes. The giant ruins of the former barracks show that there were two floors of dormitories; the lower floor for those in heavy leg irons, the upper for those in lighter irons. It was a working prison, with convicts felling timber and producing cartwheels, ironwork, and barrels.

In some ways, convicts had it better than prisoners in American or British prisons, or even poor people outside prison: Here, they had better diets (their garden produced 10,000 cabbages one season), hot water, flush toilets, shorter working hours, school in the evening, training in trades, and a huge library.

Guards and their families lived in pretty houses dotted on the hillside, and had a cricket field and a band for their leisure moments. Boys were separated from adult criminals in their own prison, where they were educated and trained in stone cutting.

But it was still a penal colony, and the punishment for breaking rules was flogging. A particularly brutal ``full Cat'' lash was used, one that was soaked in salt water to stiffen it.

After a while, it became apparent that prisoners became more violent after they had been flogged. So a new punishment was introduced: solitary confinement. It was adapted from a practice developed by American Quakers in Philadelphia. The idea was to separate a convict from his mates and get him to reflect in silence on his crimes. A new ``Model Prison'' was built to accommodate this new type of punishment.

Prison authorities here made the punishment much harsher. Rebellious men were locked in pitch-black cells for a week at a time. Food was passed through a sliding panel in the door. To keep any sound from reaching the convicts, the halls were covered with rush carpets and guards wore felt covers on their boots.

Much of the Model Prison still stands. You can shut yourself into one of the cells that line the corridors of what looks like a stone stable. Even in daylight, they're pretty dark, and it's easy to understand how many prisoners went mad. So many were driven insane that, in the end, an asylum had to be built.

The chapel has partitions between each seat that prevented convicts from looking at anyone but the chaplain. The only time they were allowed to speak was during hymn sings. The guards had to listen carefully to be sure prisoners weren't singing about escape plans to each other.

Port Arthur closed in 1877 after 47 years as a penal colony. Fires and decay destroyed much of it. A major conservation project cleaned things up between 1979-86.

``I didn't know a lot of convict history before,'' says Eunice Gooch, a visitor from Brisbane. ``Looking at the ruins, you get the feel of the history of the place.''

I asked one of the guides if she thought the convict experience had shaped the character of Tasmanians. ``I think so,'' said Helen Kerrsmith. ``It's still frowned upon to `dob' [inform] on your mates, although that's changing. People are now realizing it's not such a bad thing to do if you've been burgled.''

She says that people in Tasmania became proud of their convict heritage after Australia's Bicentennial in 1987 ``We're far enough away from it now,'' she says.

If you're in Port Arthur overnight, it's worth seeing the 1926 silent film ``For the Term of His Natural Life.'' It gives a feeling for the dire circumstances of people being transported to Port Arthur.

Right afterward is the extremely popular ghost tour. It's fun, eerie, and informative, and doesn't really have that much to do with ghosts. Groups are led through the ruins by guides who pass out lanterns and tell tales.

* Port Arthur is a 90-minute drive from Hobart. Entrance fees are $A12 ($US8.40) for adults, $5 for children, and $30 for a family. The film and ghost tour are $5 and $6, respectively.

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