The brochure told us explicitly not to ask questions about the massacre to the guides leading us around the site. It’s not what the place wanted to be remembered for, so they would prefer no one brought up the topic of that terrible day.
We were at Port Arthur, a historical Australian site where 35 people were shot dead by a crazed gunman in 1996. Even though I was only nine at the time, being Australian I remember the massacre well.
It was all of the news and resulted in automatic weapons being banned in my home country. Tight gun laws were brought in by our then-Prime Minister John Howard, and many were forced to give up their weapons.
People were against it at the time, but there has only been one mass shooting since, in which five people died. It was the only positive thing to come out of the atrocity that happened at Port Arthur. To this day, John Howard says his weapons reform was his proudest (although arguably one of the toughest) moments of his Prime Ministership.
Americans are you reading? You could learn something here.
But we weren’t at Port Arthur there to talk about the massacre. My family had gone to the site for the morning to learn about the suffering that came long before the incident in 1996.
Port Arthur was a convict site in the 1800s, built by the British to house male convicts being transported from the UK. Today it’s one of the most famous historical places in the whole of Australia.
There is a former prison at Port Arthur, and it was the first place in Australia to practise psychological torment rather than physical punishment. Those in charge of Port Arthur thought that whippings and other methods of punishment weren’t working well enough, so they decided to put a hood over misbehaving prisoners, lock them up for days while forcing them to stay silent.
Unsurprisingly, many of these prisoners developed mental problems, going crazy from the lack of noise and light in their lives.
But that’s not to say that physical punishment wasn’t carried out. Many of the convicts were forced to live in chains and given only a basic couple of meals of bread and water each day.
Better quality of life
But what is surprising is that for many convicts, life at Port Arthur was actually better than where they’d come from. If convicts had managed to survive the months on board the ships journeying to Australia, what they found when they arrived was natural beauty.
Aside from being imprisoned, the better-treated prisoners had a longer life expectancy at Port Arthur than free men still living in London. The prisoners may not have been fed much each day, but they were still fed – something that wasn’t guaranteed when living on the streets on the British capital.
The air quality was also significantly better, away from the pollution caused by the industrialisation that was happening in London.
Strangely, the place I felt the strongest creepy atmosphere was not in the prison itself, but in the officers’ accommodations. The houses have been restored and look mostly like they did when the convicts were at the site.
Walking into a dark home, I felt oppressed and closed-in. The hairs on the backs of my arms started to rise.
I quickly searched for either my parents or Dave, as we’d gone off exploring in different directions, not wanting to walk around on my own anymore.
I later learnt that there have been more than 1,600 ghost sightings at Port Arthur, and more than half of these have happened during the day.
Beauty of the site
Although so many awful events have happened at Port Arthur, it’s almost as though the site has made peace with itself.
When we visited, the ocean glistened as sunlight bounced off the water.
The main Port Arthur building had recently undergone a million dollar refurbishment and looked beautiful, with the backdrop of the mountains in the distance.
From a distance, the bay of Port Arthur looked even more spectacular, with the church and gardens at the back of the site being seen from the ocean and the water gently lapping the shores of the site.
Back in the convict days, society didn’t see children as a vulnerable lot who should be protected for the cruelness of life. There was none of the ‘helicopter parenting’ that goes on these days, that’s for sure.
Children were expected to be treated the same way as adults, even for punishments, and because of this many were shipped off in the convict colony to live out their sentences.
At Port Arthur, the youngest boys to be held prisoner were just nine years old. They were kept away from the men, on a small island just opposite the main site. We took the ferry out past the island and saw the island as it is now – full of trees and natural life.
Just past this crop of land was the island where they buried those who died at Port Arthur. Of the 1,600 or so souls to be laid to rest here, only a couple of hundred have their gravestones marked, mostly those of officers or others in command.
The location is aptly named ‘Isle of the Dead’.
Exploring the site from the inside out
Port Arthur has about 30 buildings and ruins to explore and the grounds of the historical site cover 40 hectares.
There is a large museum attached to the prison and you can read all about the prisoners and officers who lived on the site all those years ago.
One told the story of a man who tried to escape, dressed up as a kangaroo. As he hoped slowly away, the guards saw him and thought they’d shoot the ‘kangaroo’ to sell. As the convict was shot at, he quickly revealed himself to save his skin… and promptly got 150 lashes for his efforts.
You could probably spend an entire leisurely day at Port Arthur, but we were only there for four hours because we had to make it to our Tasman Island Cruise down the road in the afternoon.
It felt a little bit rushed and I would advise you spend at least six or so hours there to get the most out of it, including all the activities they put on and time to eat lunch at the café. Your ticket is valid for two days, so if you run out of time on your first day, you can always return the next.
When you arrive, you have to go on a compulsory 20 minute tour of the site. It’s a little introduction into the history at Port Arthur, and is helpful because the guides tell you about all there is to explore.
My favourite part of the visit was the garden near the church an officer planted back in the days of the colony, which has been grown new again in recent years. It’s a peaceful place and a chance to sit still for a moment and reflect on all that’s happened at Port Arthur.
Have you been to Port Arthur or another historical site that moved you? Leave your comment below!
Cost: It’s $35 for adults to visit the site. You can book online beforehand.
When to go: Port Arthur is open from 9:30am to 5pm. There are tours on in the evening some nights, such as the Ghost Tour.
How to get there: Port Arthur is about a one and a half hour drive from Hobart. It’s best to stay in the local area for at least one night, to make the most of your visit. The address is Arthur Highway, Port Arthur, Tasmania 7182, Australia.