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Convict History at Port Arthur, Tasmania

Our first stop along our month long Tasmanian road trip and camping adventure was the small town and former convict settlement of Port Arthur. At 60 km south east of Hobart, Port Arthur forms part of the Australian Convict Sites and is officially Tasmania’s top tourist attraction.

Consisting of eleven remnant penal sites built during the 18th and 19th centuries, today Port Arthur is the best surviving example of large-scale convict transportation and European colonial expansion made possible by the labour of convicts.

It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the World Heritage site of Port Arthur. It is an absolutely fascinating place to visit, the Peninsula boast stunning scenery and the grounds themselves are dotted with incredible crumbling ruins and beautiful old buildings, but the mood is very sombre due to the desolation of the convicts’ lives in Port Arthur. The tales are mostly terrible ones – stories of the suffering and hard lives of the convicts – but are a page in our history book nonetheless.

During our self-guided tour of the Port Arthur penal settlement, we learnt that after the American War of Independence, Britain was no longer able to send convicts to America and so sent them to the Australian colonies instead. We learnt about their desolate living conditions, their enslavement to physically demanding work and the psychological punishments they endured.

Port Arthur was believed to be an inescapable prison, surrounded by shark-infested water (much like the later Alcatraz Island in the US). Even so, there were many escape attempts and apparently a few successful ones. One of the most infamous instances was when a convict disguised himself as a kangaroo and attempted to flee. When he was spotted, the guards – thinking a kangaroo would make a welcome addition to their meagre rations – attempted to shoot him, so the convict surrendered. Isn’t that the most ingenious and incredible story?

Port Arthur is must-see Australian travel destination. A visit to Port Arthur provides an incredible insight into early Australian history and it’s more recent violent past. While it once was a penal settlement and convict prison, it was also the site of Australia’s most tragic shooting massacre in 1996, so many people also spend some time visiting the memorial and paying their respects to the 35 killed and 23 wounded on the fateful day. Port Arthur’s present day beauty provides quite the juxtaposition to it’s ugly beginnings and violent past. It really is such an incredibly fascinating place to visit and a very important place to acknowledge and pay our respect to the people who came before us.

Do you enjoy visiting historical sites? I think they have the most incredible stories to tell and lessons to be learnt. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thanks so much for reading and for sharing! XO

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