Port Arthur and The Island Of The Dead

Port Arthur, Tasmania, is a beautiful, terrible place.

Port Arthur’s history as a penal colony is dark, having been the destination for the ‘hardest’ of convicted British and Irish criminals. It operated between 1830 and 1877 as a harsh prison but its more recent past as a significant historical site also involves an unspeakably tragic massacre in 1996, which claimed the lives of 35 visitors and staff, only adding to the palpable feeling of brutality at what would otherwise be a deceivingly picturesque place. When we visited, on the first stop of our ten day Tasmania holiday, the coast of Tasmania was struck with violent, gale force winds and the entire Port Arthur site was without power, throwing the visitor’s centre and rooms within the intact historic buildings into an eerie darkness.

After making our way across the vast lawn past the entry (where ticket sales were cash only and written out by hand thanks to the loss of electricity), we were faced with the imposing Penitentiary, which housed up to 480 criminals. Though inmates at Port Arthur were labeled ‘hardened criminals’, just what qualified is questionable. As the official website explains, ‘These men and women were convicted of crimes that seem trivial today, mostly stealing small articles or livestock, but they had been convicted at least once before and Britain’s policy was to treat such re-offenders harshly. The convicts sent to ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ (Tasmania) were most likely to be poor young people from rural areas or from the slums of big cities.’ I read of one man who was sentenced to time at Port Arthur for stealing a pair of trousers.

In 1848 the harsh corporal punishment inflicted on the prisoners at Port Arthur made way for a new philosophy – the ‘Separate Prison’, built in 1850. This was part of a shift to what they called ‘psychological reform’. The term is certainly misleading. Hoods were placed over the prisoner’s heads and they were locked in tiny cells, often shackled. Hooded and shackled, they were made to remain silent so that they could reflect on their crimes. Many of the prisoners in the Separate Prison developed severe mental illness from the lack of light and sound. The remnants of their inconceivably tiny sandstone cells (in black and white, below), and the dark history of the place makes the prison block at Port Arthur very hard to stand in for any length of time. I found myself anxious to escape into the blazing sun.

Of all the vast grounds at Port Arthur, the beautiful skeleton of the grand, convict-built church (below) was the most breathtaking. Interestingly, the church was never consecrated due to disagreements between the denominations worshipping there.

A boat trip around The Island of the Dead, (below) was included in the price of entry, and provided a scenic look at the site of the prison from the shimmering water. The small island just off the shore is the resting place of a reported 1646 convicts and personnel from Port Arthur. Of those, only the graves of the 180 prison staff buried on the higher ground are marked with headstones. It was forbidden to mark the graves of the convicts as their crimes made them ‘unworthy’. Among the many graves is ‘Big’ Mark Jeffrey, the convict grave digger who dug his own grave.

In 1872 English novelist Anthony Trollope claimed that no man desired to see the “strange ruins” of Port Arthur. He was wrong.

As disturbing as its past may be, this infamous penal colony must be seen once.



  1. I have not made it there yet but what strikes me as remarkable from pictures like these is the quality of the stonework so relatively early in our colonial history.

  2. Vanessa

    As a local – well, Tasmanian – it’s always interesting to hear a visitors take on my home state. Thanks for reminding me of what’s at my own back door. Or at least, a 2hr drive from my back door!
    And thank you for the Mak Vanderwall series. 🙂

  3. Jason Phillips

    I visited Port Arthur with friends and wasn’t really thinking of where we were going at the time as I was in holiday mode. But when I arrived it had a strong emotional effect on me and in my case I became very curious about the place. It’s bleak and beautiful all at once a Déjà vu to darker period.