A Personal View of Tasmania's History

© 2001 Rod Ewins

A Brief History of Tasmania Part 2: The Convict Stain

Tasmania's infamy as a convict island is the stuff of legend. The loss of their American colonies, where they had previously dumped convicts, made Britain seek alternatives. The need was pressing, because of the numbers of convicts produced by their enormous social inequalities in access to both material welfare and legal protection, and by their many political prisoners, in particular from Ireland. For a decade after American Independence in 1776, these convicts were housed in Britain's notorious prisons and in hulks moored in the Thames and elsewhere, but the system was at breaking point. Apart from their desire to frustrate French pretensions, solving this problem was Britain's principal agenda in annexing Australia. The first penal colony established was in "Botany Bay", eulogised for its biological diversity by Sir Joseph Banks, then cursed in many convict ballads of the time. Norfolk Island, also established in 1788, followed suit.

Convicts formed part of the first groups sent to establish a foothold in Tasmania. By 1816 Tasmania was a lawless place overrun by escapee bushrangers. They preyed on free settlers who in turn battled with aborigines for the use of the land. Governors Sorell, then Arthur, regained control but their success led to Tasmania being sent ever more convicts. The repressions they instituted to keep these members of their society under control would earn Tasmania the reputation of the quintessential convict hell. As Robert Hughes puts it in his book The Fatal Shore (p.368) "ballads refer to it with a kind of passive dread lacking in the more defiant convict songs of New South Wales."

The most notorious penal settlement was established by Governor Sorell at Macquarie Harbour, on the southwest coast near today's pretty tourist town of Strahan. It was a hell-hole to escape from which convicts would murder one another simply to gain release via their own execution, to which they went almost buoyantly. The island which housed these desperate creatures was Sarah Island, now visited daily by tour-boats from Strahan, permitting tourists to gaze at the crumbling remains of buildings and slip-yards that defy one to imagine the agonies suffered there.

For less "flagrant" criminals, Maria Island, off the East Coast, was developed. Today it may be visited on day-trips from a tourist resort, one may wander among, or even pay to stay over in some of, the convict buildings. Belying this historical interlude, today it is a beautiful, gentle spot where kangaroo, wallabies, and emus graze unafraid of humans.

Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula, is similarly today a pretty place, with gently crumbling remains of convict-made-brick and hand-cut stone buildings set in undulating lawns. It has become Tasmania's premier tourist destination. It was built between 1830 and 1833 to replace both Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island, and for its time the principles on which it was established were at the cutting-edge of penal reform. Its reputation for brutality is no doubt what makes it fascinating to tourists, but by comparison with Macquarie Harbour and Norfolk Island, its horrors pale into those of a humane reformatory.

The convict system in Tasmania finally dwindled and died in 1886. But the perpetual ignominy felt by a "Port Arthur man" would fester on in descendants for generations. Into the late 20th Century, State Archivists had a problem guarding against descendants physically destroying irreplaceable records of their ancestral "stain."

Many of the buildings were destroyed by bushfires, and are still being painstakingly restored. Then, in a tragic postscript to its sanguine past, on the beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon of 28 April 1996, a crazed young Hobart man called Martin Bryant killed 35 people, tourists, residents and site employees, in and around the cafe at Port Arthur, with a military-style rifle. The wave of revulsion that swept the country encouraged politicians to enact sweeping national gun laws. The letter of these laws, and their efficacy in removing weapons from the hands of lawless people as distinct from law-abiding ones, may be debatable. But they testify to the willingness of the majority of the society, at least, to attempt prevention as its first crime-fighting strategy, rather than the punishment on which Tasmania was founded.


The notes above are based on a number of sources. Readers who would like somewhat more detail than is provided here are referred in the first instance to the excellent short monograph by Lloyd Robson, revised by Michael Roe, "A Short History of Tasmania" (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997). A very useful summary of the convict system in Tasmania is provided in the online article "History and development" which comprises pp.42-56 of the World Heritage submission "Convict Sites." For fuller descriptions, see LLoyd Robson's 2-volume History of Tasmania (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1983+), and Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore (London, Collins Harvill, 1987).

LINKS: Tasmanian History Links |  Cascades Female Factory |  Port Arthur Historic Site |