Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tasmania and the Ghosts of Empire

February 19 – 21, 2014

By David Campion

Earlier this month, the students spent a week of independent travel working on their research projects.  I took this opportunity to visit Tasmania, the island to the south of Eastern Australia.  It was a chance for me to see a new part of the country and to satisfy my longstanding historical curiosity about one of the more notorious places in the British Empire.  In many ways Tasmania feels like a different country.  It is the only state that is physically separated from the continent of Australia.  The weather is noticeably cooler and wetter than the other places we have experienced thus far.  Even before I arrived I could see miles of lush green forests, hills and farmland from the airplane window as we made our final approach.  It looked very similar to Oregon, actually.

On the second day, I drove east to the Port Arthur penal settlement.  The place is a combination of ruins and restored buildings that have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.  The place is serene and beautiful, yet disturbing and haunting at the same time.  Port Arthur was established in 1830 as a final destination for repeat offenders and high-risk convicts in the other Australian penal colonies—the world’s first “supermax” prison.  It was a cruel place, seemingly more remote from the rest of the world than even Australia.  Inmates wore leg irons constantly and were worked to exhaustion cutting timber, mining, or engaged in other backbreaking labor.  The convicts included Irish rebels, English Chartists and the few Tasmanian Aboriginals who had survived the virtual annihilation of their people.  Those who were disobedient or malingerers were subjected to reduced rations, isolation, and brutal corporal punishment.  The incarcerated included young boys and the mentally ill (though mental health in Port Arthur was a diminishing resource among most residents). Within the larger site was the “separate prison”—an early experiment in psychological conditioning of inmates.  Extended periods of solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, and aggressive religious proselytizing were the norm.  In many ways, this remote British prison was an early version of the gulags of the Soviet Union and was characterized by similar indoctrination, regimentation, torture and isolation.  There was no hope of escape for the “criminals,” many of whom were political dissidents or non-violent petty thieves driven by the realities of their poverty.  Overall, Port Arthur was a sobering history lesson.  None of the supposed barbarism of Britain’s conquered peoples could compare to its cold-bloodedness and dehumanization.  The site remains an almost mocking rejoinder to the progress and liberty invoked to justify the imperial expansion of Victorian Britain.  Indeed it makes Australia’s other penal colonies seem mild by comparison.

Guard House at Port Arthur Penal Settlement
Ruins of Main Penitentiary at Port Aurthur

After Port Arthur, I was in the mood for a lighter and more cheerful experience.  I spent the final three days hiking through two of the island’s most renowned national parks: Freycinet on the rugged eastern coast and Hartz Mountain in the vast southwestern forests.  Both were spectacular and easily lived up to my expectations of Tasmania’s rugged and wild natural beauty.  In Freycinet I climbed to the top of Mt. Amos and enjoyed a commanding view of Wineglass Bay and the Tasman Sea.  In Hartz I walked for miles through misty forests and mountains.  The most amazing quality was the silence.  Often there was not a sound to be heard—no birds, insects, animals or even the wind.  It had an almost mystical serenity.  Yet I couldn’t help but think that the same monastic silence must have seemed so unnatural to those early convicts sent out to ends of earth and was likely to have contributed to their alienation and despair.  Tasmania was indeed a haunting place: beautiful, strange, remote and silent.  I won’t soon forget it.

– Dave
Hartz Mountain National Park
Lake Esperance at Hartz Mountain National Park
View from Mt. Amos at Freycinet National Park

No comments:

Post a Comment