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Macquarie Harbour Penal Station
The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was an early penal settlement in Van Diemens Land (now Tasmania), Australia. It was located on Sarah Island, in the remote reaches of the harbour, and was the first to be built in the colony, in 1822. It dealt with predominantly male convicts, though some women were also sent there. Though it only operated for eleven years before being closed in 1833, it achieved a reputation was one of the Australian colonies', if not the British Empire's, most notorious and harsh settlements.
Macquarie Harbour was designed for two central reasons - firstly, as a place where the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements could be banished. The only means of access was through a narrow gap known as Hell's Gap, which resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement. As the island was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, and then from the settled areas of the colony by mountainous wilderness, the odds of escape from Sarah Island were particularly poor. The surveyor who mapped out the site concluded that the chances of escape were "next to impossible". A tiny nearby island, Grummet Island, was used as a place of solitary confinement. There was at least one recorded escape, however; bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat.
Lieutenant-Governor Sorell, who was in charge of the colony at that time, was also determined that the new settlement be able to reimburse the government for their expense. In this way, many of the convicts at the site were employed in the shipbuilding industry, and for a time, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the Australian colonies. Convicts were set the task of cutting down Huon Pine trees, tying the logs together, and rafting down the river. Most of the convicts were forced to do this work in chains, and under the watchful eye of guards.
The site proved unable to support itself in terms of food, and malnutrition, dysentery and scurvy were rampant, particularly in the early years of the settlement. Living conditions were so crowded that it was claimed to be impossible for a convict to sleep on their back, and floggings were regular, with 9,100 lashes being given in 1823 alone. Ergot was added to bread made in the bakehouse, so that it would turn mouldy quickly, thus preventing convicts from saving up their ration allowances. There was a reported case in 1824 where a prisoner killed another prisoner in order that he would be executed, rather than face continued detention on the island.
The ruins of the settlement remain today as the World Heritage-listed Sarah Island Historic Site, though they are not nearly as well preserved as those at the more well known Port Arthur. The island is accessible via ferries operating out of the town of Strahan.
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