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Port Arthur, Tasmania
Port Arthur is a town and former convict settlement on the Tasman Peninsula, in Tasmania, Australia. Port Arthur is officially Tasmania's top tourist attraction. It is located approximately 60 km south east of the state capital, Hobart, though it is approximately 120 km by road.
Port Arthur is located approximately 60 km south east of the state capital, Hobart, on the Tasman Peninsula. The scenic drive from Hobart, via the Tasman Highway to Sorell and the Arthur Highway to Port Arthur, takes around 90 minutes and covers approximately 100 km. Transport from Hobart to the site is also available via ferry or sea plane .
The population of Port Arthur is around 200, with the entire Tasman Peninsula area home to about 1600 people.
Australia's largest penal colony
Although it started as a timber station in 1830, it is best known for being a penal colony. From 1833, until 1850s, it was a destination for the hardest of convicted British criminals. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were also sent here, a quite undesirable punishment. It contains one of the best examples of a working panopticon based on the Pentonville Prison model, which signalled a shift from physical punishment to psychological punishment. It was thought that the hard corporal punishment, such as whippings, used in other penal stations only served to harden criminals, and did nothing to turn them from their immoral ways. Under this system of punishment the "Silent System" was implemented in the "Model Prison" building. Here prisoners were hooded and made to stay silent, this was supposed to allow time for the prisoner to reflect upon the actions which had brought him there. In many ways Port Arthur was the pin-up for many of the penal reform movement, despite shipping, housing and slave-labour use of convicts being as harsh, or worse, than others stations around the nation.
In addition Port Arthur had some of the newest and strictest security measures of the Australian penal system. Port Arthur was secured naturally by shark infested waters on three sides and the 30m wide peninsula of Eaglehawk Neck that connected it to the mainland was crossed by fences and guarded by prison guards and dogs. Contact between visiting seamen and prisoners was barred. Ships had to check in their sails and oars upon landing to prevent any unnotified leavings.
Port Arthur was sold as an unescapeable prison, much like the later Alcatraz Island in the United States. Some prisoners were not discouraged by this, and tried to escape. One of the most infamous incidents being Billy Hunt , simply for its bizzarity. Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to flee across the Neck. For the half-starved guards on duty, the disguise was so convincing that they tried to shoot him to supplement their meagre rations. When he noticed them sighting him up, Hunt threw off his disguise and surrendered.
Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts , receiving many boys, some as young as nine arrested for stealing toys. Like the adult population, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings constructed was one of Australia's first non-denominational churches, built in a gothic style. Attendance of the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prison population, critics of the new system noted that this and other measures seemed to have neglible impact on reformation.
Despite its badge as a pioneer in the new nicer age of imprisonment, Port Arthur was still as harsh and brutal as other penal settlements. Some critics might even suggest that its use of psychological punishment, compounded with no hope of escape, made it one of the worst. Some tales suggest that prisoners committed murder (an offence punishable by death) just to escape the desolation of life at the camp. The Island of the Dead was the destination for all who died inside the prison camps. Of the 1646 graves recorded to exist there, only 180, those of prison staff and military personnel, are marked. The prison closed in 1877.
From hellhole to haven: tourism development
After the closure of the penal colony the site was renamed to "Carnavon". During the 1880s the land in and around the site was sold off to the public and a community was established. Devastating fires tore through the area in 1895 and 1897 gutting the old prison buildings, leading to the establishment of the new town, with post office and other facilities.
Tourism started up almost as soon as the last convicts had left, supplying the new residents with a source of income, part of its undoubtedly due to its unsavoury past, and the ghost stories that accompany it. In 1927 tourism had grown to the point where the area's name was reverted back to Port Arthur. 1916 saw the establishment of the Scenery Preservation Board (SPB) which took the management of Port Arthur out of the hands of the locals. By the 1970s the National Parks and Wildlife Service began managing the site.
In 1979 funding was received to preserved the site as a tourist destination, due to its historical significance. The 'working' elements of the Port Arthur community such as the post office and municipal offices where moved to nearby Nubeena . Several magnificent sandstone structures, built by convicts working under hard labour conditions, were cleaned of ivy overgrowth and restored to a condition similar to their appearance in the 19th century. Buildings include the "Model Prison", the Round Tower,the church, and the remnants of the main penitentiary. The buildings are surrounded by lush green parkland.
The mass graves on The Island of the Dead also attract visitors. The air about the small bush-covered island being described as possessing "melancholic" and "tranquil" qualities by visitors.
Tourists can either survey the site for themselves, or participate in guided tours. There is also a museum, containing written records, tools, clothing and other curiosities from convict times.
Since 1987 the site has been managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority , funded by the Tasmanian Government .
Port Arthur Massacre
Main article: Port Arthur Massacre
On April 29, 1996, the small community was scarred by an event now referred to as the Port Arthur Massacre. This tragedy occurred when a man named Martin Bryant began shooting indiscriminately, murdering 35 people and wounding dozens more. This led to a consequent national ban on automatic weapons by the Howard government. It also forged a relationship between the town and Dunblane, a Scottish town which suffered a similar incident earlier that month.
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