A devil of a good time

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February 4th 2020
Published: February 13th 2020
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Although Melbourne is a wonderful city, and more European than most places in Australia, we did not actually spend much time there. Following our visit to Healesville, the next day we went to the Mornington Peninsula (more on that later) and the the following day visited the Museum and then flew to Hobart, Tasmania. For some reason, even more than the rest of Australia, Tasmania has always seemed a particularly exotic destination to me. Not sure if it is the prison background, or the sordid aboriginal history, or the Tasmanian devils of cartoons, or perhaps the far southernly location, but Tasmania has always seemed the stuff of dreams. As it turns out, it is indeed that in some ways.

With only two days to spend in Tassie, we elected to focus on two things: the beauty and bounteous seafood of the Freycinet Peninsula, and the sordid prison colony past in Port Arthur.

The Freycinet Peninsula Mostly a wild area, with some areas that remain untouched by humans. It is the home of several endangered species, including some plants that exist nowhere else. The Tasmanian devil was previously common here, but numbers have declined dramatically because of a transmissible virus that causes facial tumors that ultimately are fatal. It had great beaches, including the one at Wineglass Bay that is listed as one of the best 10 in the world. Unfortunately, to get to it you have to traverse over a difficult mountain pass on foot, and that was beyond our capability. However, there were other great vistas. In addition, there is a large marine farm offering their locally grown oysters, mussels, etc. We had oysters there, and they were obviously of the same variety as the ones we had at Doyle's in Sydney, but were smaller and not as succulent.

This carved coast has several under-cliff cutouts where the sea intrudes, sometimes leaving spectacular arches, inlets, and blowholes.

The second day we headed south rather than north, to the historic prison site Port Arthur.

The industrial and agricultural revolutions in Britain led to a great increase in crime from numerous causes, including rapid population growth, increased drunkenness, movement of people from small towns where agricultural employment was no longer available to the cities, and loss of access to goods such as cotton and wool as they were increasingly diverted to factories. The country did not have sufficient prisons to deal with the felons whose offenses were not considered to be worthy of the death penalty, and the idea of transportation came up as an option. For an interesting diversion, read bout benefit of clergy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefit_of_clergy). Transportation was frequently to the American colony, but after the American revolution that became unavailable, and increasingly Australia became the transportation site of choice. Between 1788 and 1868 abut 162,000 convicts were transported. Although many were only sentenced to a few years of imprisonment, the were provided no means of getting back home and therefore most stayed and became colonists. About 25% of Australians are descended from former convicts, and the percentage in Tasmania may be as high as 70%.

The Port Arthur site sits on a peninsula that can be reached on land only by a very narrow isthmus only 30 meters wide at the narrowest point. It was therefore considered to be escape-proof, leading to this becoming a prison for the worst of the worst, primarily convicts who re-offended after transport to other prison sites from England. The layout and conduct of the prison was actually felt to be a step forward in enlightened prison management. Flogging was abandoned in favor of psychological punishment, including solitary confinement with complete silence mandated, supposedly to allow the prisoner time to reflect on his sins. However, the seclusion was so extreme that prisoners who had suffered both felt that the psychological punishment was much worse than flogging. They were even forced to go to church but each confined to a high-sided box so that they could not see anyone else.. It is no coincidence that an asylum for the mentally deranged was built immediately next door to the seclusion prison.

Following closure of the prison, the site was turned into a macabre tourist attraction, then eventually into a heritage site such as it is now.

On April 28, 1996 a young man used an assault-style rifle to kill 35 people at the Port Arthur cafe and gift shop. He was apprehended the next day and is currently serving a sentence of 35 life sentences plus 1035 years. 12 days later Australia passed very strict gun control laws, including a buyback that netted 1 million weapons. No mass shootings hav occurred in Australia since that time.

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