Monday, 31 March 2014

2013 Trip to Tasmania - Day 5 - Port Arthur

Port Arthur... Port Arthur... The name rang a bell but, as it turned out, a wrong one. Port Arthur that I had in mind was a place of the most violent battle of the Russo-Japanese War. Obviously, it's not a good name for a town since Tasmanian Port Arthur also became known around the world for all the wrong reasons. Initially, it was a prison for British convicts popularised in Marcus Clarke's novel For the Term of His Natural Life. However, the locals did not want any stake in such kind of fame and even renamed the town to Carnarvon to disassociate themselves from the penal history of the site. Still, the gruesome past of one of the most brutal convict settlements proved to be a strong tourist attraction, and Carnarvonians were smart enough to realise that they would earn more money as Port-Arthurians, so the original name was restored in 1927. Sixty nine years later Port Arthur earned another grisly badge as a place of the deadliest massacre in the recent Australian history. After such introduction you will understand that we just couldn't miss it.

I can't say that the site itself was beautiful or impressive unless you are impressed by ruins. Come to think of it, what with 20 million tourists coming to see the remnants of Colosseum every year, I probably represent minority in this matter. Nevertheless, even I found a few ways to pleasantly pass the time in Port Arthur.

There were a few scheduled activities which were included into the price of an entry ticket, such as Harbour Cruise. Normally, I would eagerly board a boat, but having survived Tasman Island Cruise earlier that day, I found the phrase "water attractions" oxymoronic and kept my distance from the shore. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed a guided walking tour during which I visited all notable places and learned a lot about the history of Port Arthur, including why there were so many convicts in Britain at that time. It appeared that there were three main factors which simultaneously caused a high level of unemployment, and consequently, crime. Firstly, a lot of soldiers returned home after the end of Napoleonic Wars. Secondly, industrialisation started to pick up and many factory workers were made redundant. Finally, it was the time when landlords found it more profitable to develop the land themselves than to rent it to farmers. All this combined with tough laws, which allowed sentences up to 21 years for petty theft, provided a steady flow of convicts to overcrowded British gaols until the government decided to offshore correctional services.

After the tour I spent an hour in a museum learning curious facts about life in the penal colony and gazing at things made or used by convicts and officers. In that museum I found a particoloured "magpie convict suit" which I remembered seeing before, possibly in some movie, and thinking it was just a regular prisoner's uniform. It turned out that such uniform was reserved only for recidivists and was considered humiliating.

The last place I visited in Port Arthur was Convict Gallery, or as I called it, Card House. At the entrance every visitor was given a playing card which had a convict's name on it and they could find a story of that convict in the Gallery. Of course, I was curious to check why my miscreant was transported to Terra Australis and how he fared here. His story was not remarkable, but what I found interesting was that the harshness of British laws was offset by rather liberal parole rules in Australia. Prisoners were released on parole after serving less than half their sentence even though they committed misdemeanors in gaol. They also underwent training in trades while serving their sentence which gave them good prospects of finding a job upon release.

I found the visit to Port Arthur quite entertaining despite my general dislike of the museums; for me it was more of an educational experience than sightseeing. The convict history in Australia was unusual enough to keep me interested for at least a couple of hours and I would spend more time there had we come earlier. However, I won't go there again any time soon. That place is like a book: once you've read it, it will take some time before you feel like reading it again.

By the way, I've told you a lie. The last place I visited in Port Arthur was actually a gift shop where I was supplied with a piece of clothing. As you can see it's not a magpie suit; I wasn't that bad.

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