‘In all, close to 13,000 convicts spent time at Port Arthur during its 47-year history (with around 8 per cent of serving convicts buried there).’
In this book, Mr Cameron provides background to the establishment of Port Arthur, the history of its operation as a penal colony and its closure in 1877. We learn about the differing approaches to the treatment of convicts. about the semaphore system used to convey messages, about the ships built there as well as the coal mines, the convict operated railway and the attempts at escape. In telling the story of Port Arthur, Mr Cameron incorporates the stories of several individuals within the history, including Charles O’Hara Booth (Commandant of Port Arthur from 1833 to 1844); Mark Jeffrey (a convict who was the gravedigger on the Isle of the Dead between 1874 and 1877); and William Thompson (a cobbler transported for life in 1841 who spent a year working in the underground coal mines).
The responsibility for Port Arthur was transferred from the British government to Tasmania in 1870 and the penal settlement closed in 1877.
‘It was on that day, Monday, 17 September 1877, that the seven remaining convicts were transported to Hobart on board the schooner Harriet and the doors to buildings were locked – Port Arthur ceased to exist as a penal settlement.’
These days, Port Arthur is a tourist destination. I visited twice during the 1970s, trying to imagine convict life amongst the peaceful ruins that remain. I walked around the shell of the church and the remnants of the penitentiary, around to the dockyards. I have not been to the Coal Mine site. And I feel a need, now, to include Mr Cameron’s epilogue:
‘The most pathetic and cowardly criminal to arrive at Port Arthur entered the site on Sunday, 28 April 1996 – he killed 35 innocent people, and physically and emotionally wounded another 23 along with the psychological scarring of surviving witnesses.’
This is a comprehensive account of both the events leading to the establishment of the penal settlement of Port Arthur and its operation. I knew some of this history and learned more. This book is an important addition to Tasmania’s complicated colonial history. Recommended.