Port Arthur in Tasmania once had a reputation as an inescapable prison, Australia’s Alcatraz. In April 1996, it gained new fame as the site of the worst massacre in the modern history of Australia when Martin Bryant from Hobart killed 35 people and wounded 23 more.
Port Arthur is located approximately 97 kilometres (60 mi) southeast of the state capital, Hobart and has a population of around 250. Many of them are employed in tourism based around the historic site.
Port Arthur began life in 1833 as a penal colony for British and Irish convicts and was meant to be toughest of all the prisons in Australia, said to be inescapable like Alcatraz in California. It was named after George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, the name given to Tasmania until 1856. A timber station was built in the area at the same time as the penal colony and convicts were forced to work in the industry upon arrival.
It was the destination for British and Irish criminals who re-offended after their arrival at other colonies in Australia and it gained a reputation as the toughest of all the penal colonies. Many of the convicts were sent from Spike Island in Cork Harbour which would also later become a notorious island prison. Port Arthur was said to have the strictest security measures in the British penal system. Escaping was said to be impossible. The prison was surrounded by shark infested waters and connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck which was guarded by soldiers and heavily fortified. All contact with visiting vessels was prohibited and they were searched thoroughly upon departure.
One convict who did escape was Martin Cash, originally from Enniscorthy in Ireland, who absconded from a work party with two others on 26 December 1842. He was captured after killing a man in Hobart in September the following year and sent to Norfolk Island. Another escape attempt happened when George “Billy” Hunt disguised himself as a kangaroo and tried to escape across Eaglehawk Neck. The guards attempted to shoot him to supplement their rations, at which point he threw off the disguise to reveal himself.
The prison at Port Arthur was expanded in 1855 and had a cross shape design. There was exercise yards in each corner with wings connected to a central core. It employed Separate Prison Typology which was advocated by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Punishment was psychological rather than physical. Corporal punishment was seen as having less impact on hardened criminals and so was deemed not to be appropriate for Port Arthur. Many of the psychological punishments, such as depriving them of light and sound, caused many to develop mental illness and an asylum was built next to the prison as a result.
A juvenile prison was constructed at Point Puer with boys as young as nine sent from Britain and Ireland. Like the adult convicts, they were subjected to hard labour. One of Australia’s first nondenominational churches was built at Port Arthur and Sunday service was compulsory. The nondenominational nature of the church took into account that many convicts from Britain were Protestant while many from Ireland were Catholic.
The climate at Port Arthur was generally more favourable to convicts from the British Isles than other penal colonies such as Ross Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which was prone to diseases such as malaria. Even still, 1,646 graves were recorded on the Isle of the Dead, a small island where all those who died in the prisons and asylum were buried. Only 180 are marked, mostly those of staff members.
Transportation of convicts ceased in 1853 and by 1877, Port Arthur was closed. 75,000 convicts had been sent to Van Diemen’s Land during its time as a penal colony. In 1856, it became a self governing colony of the British Empire, changing its name to Tasmania. In 1901, it voted to unite with the other Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
Port Arthur was sold in 1889 after being left to decay for a number or years. The new owners began tearing down the buildings and fires in 1895 and 1897 destroyed the old prison house. There was also damage caused by a number of earth tremors. Hoping to remove the negative connotations attached to the area, the town of Carnarvon was created and tourists were encouraged to visit the natural beauty of the peninsula.
The area was unable to distance itself from its past and ghost stories continued to bring attention to the prison ruins. The popular novels For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke and The Broad Arrow by Caroline Leakey helped fuel the curiosity. In 1927, it was decided to revert to the name Port Arthur. The Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) took over the site in 1916 and managed it until the 1970s when the National Parks and Wildlife Service took over.
Today, Port Arthur is one of Australia’s most visited historical sites, receiving over 250,000 visitors each year. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 31 July 2010 as part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property. Ghost tours are particularly popular with lantern lit walks around the site taking place after dark.
Perhaps one of the darkest days in Port Arthur’s history took place on 28 April 1996. 28-year-old Martin Bryant from Hobart entered the Broad Arrow Café at the site in the afternoon and began shooting people. He killed twelve people, and wounded ten more before moving on to the gift shop. Here, he killed eight more before leaving into the car park. He moved towards the waiting coaches and began shooting tourists. Following this, he got in his car and drove back towards the entrance toll booth, killing people as he went including two children. He killed another victim at a nearby service station and a final victim as he returned to the scene of his first murders, the home of a couple who he blamed on his father’s suicide in 1993. In total, Martin Bryant killed 35 people and injured 23. He was sentenced 35 life sentences without parole.