03 February 2007

Port Arthur

While in Tasmania we visited the Port Arthur Historic Site, one of the largest prison settlements in Australia. It was a very busy day due to the size of the site. We started the day with a brief walking tour to get the basics then went on a brief harbour cruise. During the cruise, we stopped at the Isle of the Dead, a small island where over 1100 convicts are buried, the majority in unmarked graves. Families were usually back in England or Ireland, and either unwilling to send money for a marker or too late. Besides, there was no guarantee of quality since the stones were made by typically uneducated convicts. If you click on the picture below, you may notice there is a full stop (period) after every word--the convict who made it wasn't sure about the rules and decided to play it safe.
The site consists of over thirty buildings in various states of ruin. There are several different schools of thought regarding how to treat an historic site like this. Port Arthur has decided to preserve the buildings as they are rather than attempt to reconstruct them. The theory is that if you rebuild and attempt to add period furnishings, you are forcing your own interpretation onto the site. For example, all that is left of the church is a four wall shell. Even though there is no roof and the floor is grass, it is still clearly a church. Basically, the site is treated more like an archaeology site than a museum. This picture of the port shows the penitentiary on the right and the remains of the hospital on the top of the hill. Behind the trees on the left is the military barracks.
To the right of the hospital and down the hill is the Separate Prison. This is where the behavior problems were sent. While those in the main quarters were able to interact with others for most of the day, the Separate Prison was a study in isolation. Inmates were not allowed to talk, even to a guard. Guards did not speak, either. Inmates spent their time alone in their cell, studying a bible. When they were removed from their cell, they wore a hood, isolating them visually from others. They were required to keep distance between themselves while walking to worship or exercise. The picture below is the chapel in the Separate Prison with me in the middle. Inmates walked into their cubicle, closing the doors between themselves and their neighbors. The only person they could see in the room was the minister.
There was also an isolation chamber for those who couldn't behave in the Separate Prison. An inmate would be locked in a small chamber in darkness with two foot walls that no sound would penetrate. They would be fed irregularly, quickly losing all sense of time. After a while, the prison was forced to add an asylum for all of the convicts who were driven mad.
The main building includes a hands on exhibit about the site. One of the treats they had were some leg irons you could put on. Very heavy!

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