Why does Tasmania whitewash its convict past?


Just over 200 years ago the Australian state of Tasmania was England’s human dumping ground. For fifty years over 70,000 men, women and children were ripped from their homes and shackled to be sent to penal colonies at the bottom of the world.

Never to see their homes, never to see their families again, they were judicial guinea pigs that suffered horrendous conditions. Yet walk through and experience these penal colonies in Tasmania today and the misery and hardship these people endured has been cleansed from the tourists gaze.

It is Easter in Hobart, Tasmania’s captial, and a traditionally sleepy city is further lulled into a hushed pace as most attractions have their doors firmly closed. MONA, Hobart’s stellar new avant garde attraction defies such tradition and tourists eagerly board the ferry to take them to a sensory feast.

Removing the clawing ‘criminal class’

Hangman's noose and trap door at Hobart Gaol
The hangman’s noose and trapdoor still intact at Hobart Gaol


A twenty five minute walk from the pier but the proverbial million miles from the experience at MONA, sits a building on the corner of Campbell and Brisbane streets. It is the type of building you pass a hundred times a day, and never commit to memory. A relic of the past with little importance to your hurried present.

A neat wooden wicker fence binds the corners of both streets and the red brick building sits tidily behind. A clock tower reaches skyward and genuflects to a time when this building commanded respect in a society desperate to demonstrate law and order.

It is the chapel of Hobart Gaol. The only surviving remnant of the jail that was the initial epicenter of Britians policy to remove the clawing ‘criminal class’ from its sight.

Steal bread, forge a cheque, or pinch some clothes and your sentence was jail in Tasmania or Van Diemens land as it was then known.

Between 1803 and 1853 over 70,000 convicts were transported to this dreaded hell hole of the British empire and Hobart Gaol was an integral cog in this crushing penal machine.

It starts with the guide. A linear history of the Gaol and the chapel is presented but as we make our way around the creaky history laden building which doubled as a courts, the suffering endured by those incarcerated here is mopped away.

A wheel convicts were forced to turn to make flour in eight hours of hard labour was presented as pleasurable exercise, akin to going to the gym today. Underground solitary confinement cells, slightly wider than the width of an average person and densely dark, were heralded for their feat of engineering.

A convict, Mark Jeffrey, the gravedigger for the Isle of the Dead, was highlighted with a light hearted mannequin, the comedic interlude ignoring the fact a man who clearly had mental issues and physical disabilities from a life in shackles, was held in deplorable conditions in a cell that saw no sunlight.

The tale of positivity continued as the penal system was praised for its attempt to educate this untamed class. At the hangman’s noose, where 32 people plunged through the trapdoor, the method of death is praised for its ‘efficency’.

Glancing at the images and maps of this prison and one could see this original army barracks was poorly designed for its function. The entire complex, the grainy stern pictures of the wardens, the trifling offences of the imprisoned all smacked of Georgian arrogance towards the unwanted by product of their society.

Suffering, anguish, despair, heartbreak, loneliness, fear, pain, most certainly roamed the corridors of this penal institution, it is a historical disservice to underplay it.

The world’s first Gulag 

Port Arthur
The remains of the world’s first Gulag, Port Arthur, Tasmania.


Just over two hours from Hobart in the penal colony of Port Arthur and Tasmania’s absentmindedness to the cruelty and suffering in its dark past continues.

The lapping of the Tasman sea and luscious green gardens rolling out to meet historic ruins betrays what Port Arthur one was, the world’s first gulag.

Thousands of men toiled here for close to 50 years under stern masters and a severe prison system. Shackled, these prisoners sawed the timber for the British fleet, and mined the coal to fuel the growth of this burgeoning colony.

Boys as young as 9 were put to work in a juvenile prison built on a lonely rocky outcrop. One prisoner spent 12 months underground in the coalmines. Two 14 year old boys killed their overseer.

Stroll to the still intact ‘ayslum’ and you will see the birth of the use of ‘white torture’. Peer through the cell door at the brilliantly white white washed cells inside, think of those men who spent their entire adults life under lock and key and now were guinea pigs in a new field of physiological torture.

Yet this misery is cleansed clean from these cells today. Inside the din of a drama play swipes aside the cold harsh reality of life of an inmate inside. How can we hear the past if we amp up the volume to please the present.

The reality of the past is further rinsed on the tour.

A 12 year old boy sentenced to this remote misery, for stealing razors, is emphasised by two different guides as being a career criminal. Having numerous previous convictions the young boy, outline the guides, was perhaps saved by the welcoming reforming arms of this penal colony. Neglecting to mention the same 12 year old boy was executed for rebelling against prison authority. William Pearson was 22 when he was buried in a mass grave.

History, irrespective of its effect on the tourist dollar or the national pride, demands to be told in its raw unvarnished form. The convict history of Tasmania was dark and depressing. Muddling the misery and sanitising this past does little service to those who endured it.

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