Tasmania - Rich in Bloody Convict History

Tasmania is full of rich and interesting history. You don't have to be a true history buff to be really drawn into what life must have been like back in the early 1800's. There is so much of the history and convict past that is left in tact that it is impossible to avoid contact with it during a visit to Tasmania. Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, was established in 1803 as a British penal colony and over the next 50 years, 73,500 convicts were transported to the opposite side of the world for crimes ranging from minor misdemeanours to political activities. Life was harsh.

As a visitor you can touch the marks of a convict chisel on hand-cut sandstone in the heritage village of Richmond and sense the severe conditions in which the prisoners toiled. Sit in the garden of remembrance at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart and ponder the fate of the hundreds of women and children jailed there – their hidden history only now emerging. And stand on the 20 metre clifftops at Point Puer, where boiling rips and dangerous currents made certain that more than 2000 boys transported to the colony could not escape the reformatory.

The presence of Tasmania’s convict heritage is strongest on the Tasman Peninsula, in the south of the State, at Eaglehawk Neck, Saltwater River and Port Arthur, where a Convict Trail leads around seven outstations. Ninety minutes by road from Hobart, Port Arthur is the Australian emblem of the miseries of transportation and the tranquil inlet contrasts with legends of the penal settlement’s past.

Prison Ruins at Port Arthur in Tasmania Australia
Prison Ruins at Port Arthur

Enter through the Visitor Centre, where at the snap of a playing card you are assigned the daily life of one of the original convict inhabitants. Follow his daily routine as you stroll the green lawns under the towering bulk of the brick penitentiary or through the remains of the Gothic church. Live his story of solitary confinement or flogging with the infamous cat o’ nine tails – you can still see the punishment cells barely large enough to contain a single man, kept in the dark like a wild beast.

At nearby Point Puer, boys from 9 to 18 years were housed in a jumble of barracks, workrooms and schoolrooms. The new arrivals were forced into labor gangs to do the hard physical work required to maintain the prison. Of the 38 boys who died there from 1834-1843, 22 were labourers.

The boys were given classes in practical trades like joinery, bootmaking, carpentry, nail-making and blacksmithing. In 1844 alone, 34 brickmakers turned out 155,000 bricks –look for the thumbprints left by long-dead adolescents as they pushed bricks from the sandstock moulds.

In the north west corner of the Tasman Peninsula, the ruins of prisoner barracks, solitary cells and a chapel are all that remain of a convict coal mine operated by up to 600 men at its peak. They worked underground in atrocious conditions on eight-hour shifts day and night.

Convict Hand Carved Sand Stone - Ross Bridge in Tasmania Australia
Convict Hand Carved Sand Stone - Ross Bridge

Throughout Tasmania the bridges and churches crafted by convict stonemasons remain landmarks today. The Ross Bridge is one of the best examples, with stonemasons carving provocative caricatures of figures of authority into the stone arches.

Convicts working in chain gangs forged the original route through the heart of the State – now the Heritage Highway.

Though they toiled during the day under the eye of brutal overseers, they had little supervision at night and contributed to robberies that plagued early travellers.

The desperate authorities in the early 1820s devised a method of banishing convicts turned bushrangers, establishing a hell-hole on a barren island in the middle of the rough, unpredictable Macquarie Harbour, on the west coast.

Sarah Island’s shipyards turned out more than 80 vessels of varying sizes, one of which was used for a daring escape. The characters come to life at the Strahan Visitor Centre, where the Round Earth Theatre Company regularly stages The Ship That Never Was.

One of the best known bushrangers of the period was Martin Cash, who became a legend for twice thwarting the dreaded Dog Line at Eaglehawk Neck. A detachment of military guards and a line of ferocious dogs guarded the narrow isthmus to prevent convict escapes from Port Arthur.

Hobart’s docks were the disembarkation point for many chained convicts, who arrived to the noise and bustle of a crowded cluster of warehouses, rowdy taverns and maritime workshops. The impressive Georgian warehouses have been recycled as restaurants, artists studios and galleries and other features of the Sullivan’s Cove area include Knopwood’s Retreat – named after the hard-drinking first parson of Van Diemen’s Land – and Kelly’s Steps, built by intrepid whaler and explorer, James Kelly.

The nearby village of Richmond is carefully preserved and in use as craft outlets, cafes, shops, accommodation and private residences, with plentiful tales of bushrangers and convicts at the historic gaol.

The central highlands village of Bothwell, with a population of about 300, has more than 50 buildings of heritage value and the oldest golf course in the southern hemisphere. Two of a group of seven Irish political exiles transported to Van Diemen’s Land once lived in the town.

In the north, Launceston is Australia’s oldest provincial centre and contains some of the country’s best examples of Edwardian and Federation architecture. Established in 1806 and gazetted as a city in 1888, it offers relaxing walks along graceful Victorian streetscapes featuring colonial churches.

Built heritage throughout the regions and towns of Tasmania reflects the convict and colonial heritage, from grand mansions offering visitor accommodation to quaint cottages, former coaching inns and pubs still in service. Wander one of the cemeteries dating back to the early 1800s and let the headstones tell the family histories.

With all of this colourful history, Tasmania is definitely a place to explore and reflect on Australia's colonial past.

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