Saturday, September 23, 2006


I'm blogging out of order, but we made it back to Canberra, after a week in Tasmania and Melbourne.

Tasmania is an island about 120 miles off the southern coast. It's a quarantine within a quarantine: the island ecology is so distinct that you can't bring food or animal products from the mainland. It is sparsely populated, and beautiful, with a population of about 450,000.

On Sunday (Sept. 17) we visted Port Arthur, about 100 km outside of Hobart. It was established in 1830, and became a destination for transported convicts who got into trouble once they arrived in Australia (and it didn't take much). It was the prison system's prison.

And an appallingly brutal place. Intolerably cruel conditions, whippings, impossible work requirements, terrible sanitation. Most inmates were constantly in leg irons, weighing up to 30 pounds, and they faced additional discipline if they tried to keep their ankles from swelling up from the irritation. One inmate got 75 lashes for sending a letter of complaint to the prison commandant. On arrival, inmates spent up to 4 months in solitary confinement, in total sound isolation -- they were not permitted to speak, and the guards wore slippers to muffle their footsteps. Even during compulsory worship, the chapel was designed so that the men could not see each other. There was even a separate boys prison for children too young to survive in the main camp. The youngest wound up there at the age of nine. It was very strange walking through such a beautiful place, knowing what went on there.

The prison closedin 1877, and a series of brush fires around 1890 destroyed much of what was left. Now, it's mostly masonry walls and foundations.

This is the main building, which was built by the convicts. Several hundred were housed on each floor.

Trivial rule violations bought you up to 30 days in an isolation cell, in total darkness. One inmate had his arm amputated after being shot trying to escape. He was sent back to the work detail 3 days later, to show the others that being hurt wouldn't get you any favorable treatment.

Here's the church, which was built in 1836, also by convicts:

In April 1996, Port Arthur was also the site of the worst crime in Australian history. A young man named Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people, and wounded 17 more. The main rampage started in a cafe on the site, where 20 people died. It's now a memorial garden. I tried to read an account of the day at the bookstore, but couldn't get through it.


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