Bloody legacy surfaces on idyllic island

The massacre has raised the ghosts of a brutal past, reports Robert Milliken in Port Arthur, Tasmania

Port Arthur is a ghostly place. As Tasmanians gather there today for a melancholy memorial service a week after the massacre of 35 people, the ghosts of Port Arthur's violent past will be watching. Only after the shock and trauma of the most horrific crime in modern Australia, are the parallels of Tasmania's past and present fusing. For, if such a thing was to happen anywhere in this, one of the world's remotest, safest and peaceful islands, Port Arthur was almost predestined to be the place.

Driving down to Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula from Hobart, the island's capital, you pass through soft, rolling hills, Georgian cottages with smoke swirling out of chimneys, chickens scratching on the roadside and people fishing from bridges. This is the Tasmania that the island's 460,000 people like to think has always been there, unchanged and unchanging. It is also the Tasmania to which Australians from the mainland, jaded by city life, love to escape. But, when modern Tasmania was founded 150 years ago, it was a place which almost every European sent there wanted desperately to escape from.

In the 19th century, Tasmania was one of the toughest colonies in the British Empire. Convicts were sent there long after transportation to New South Wales ceased, and by the 1850s, the island was bulging with miscreants. Its policy had been set by Sir George Arthur, who ruled Tasmania with cold ruthlessness as lieutenant-governor for 12 years from 1824. Arthur compared his prisoners to unbroken horses and described the Aborigines as "troublesome assailants". Both groups were to be tamed by authority.

Port Arthur, the prison that bears his name, opened in 1830 as a place for second offenders - those convicted of crimes since landing in Australia - and for newly arrived convicts from England. It took over the roles of two earlier prisons, at Macquarie Harbour and Maria Island.

The 12,700 convicts who landed at Port Arthur over its 47 years must have wondered if they were really coming to a prison. It faces a sheltered inlet surrounded by attractive woodland. Even today, allowing for the prettiness of the site's restoration, it is hard to reconcile the idyllic scene with the violence that went on there. Convicts were flogged and clamped in irons for the most trivial transgressions. Those who tried to escape out over the narrow isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck, were set upon by slavering hounds kept for that purpose. Port Arthur acquired the name, Hell's Gates.

Historian Robert Hughes offers a vivid account of the lot of Tasmania's convicts in his book The Fatal Shore: "Half-starved, chilled to the bone, forced to labour 12 hours a day in winter and 16 in summer, sleeping on a wet rock under the driving rain squalls of the Southern Ocean, aching with rheumatism and stinking from dysentery, afflicted by saltwater boils and scurvy, some convicts nevertheless remained defiant. Hence flogging was a daily event..."

For their part, the Aborigines had an even worse time. Last Sunday's massacre was not Tasmania's first, by a long shot. That was recorded in 1804, when soldiers opened fire on a party of 300 Aboriginal men, women and children. Thereafter, random shootings and torture of Aborigines were commonplace. Some white settlers killed blacks for sport, hunting them down from horses like kangaroos or Tasmanian devils - a species which, like the Aborigines themselves, eventually became extinct on the island.

George Arthur did not approve of such uncontrolled murders. His solution to the "black problem" was more clinical. He ordered soldiers, settlers and convicts to form a chain across Tasmania and drive all Aborigines in a pincer movement toward a "Black Line" at Eaglehawk Neck, whence they were to be dumped on an offshore island. The exercise failed.

The killings, in any case, had taken their toll. There were about 4,000 Aborigines in Tasmania when whites arrived. By 1835, there were just 150 full-bloods left. The last full-blood Aborigine, a woman called Trucanini, known as the Last Tasmanian, died a human wreck in Hobart in 1876. Her bones lay in a box for 100 years until, in 1976, they were cremated and scattered on D'Entrecasteaux Channel, near Hobart, where she had asked to be interred.

Until last Sunday, modern Tasmanians had tried to put their violent past behind them. The island's population is largely conservative, monarchist and Anglo-Saxon, isolated from the ethnic and social diversity of the mainland. Yet Peter MacFie, a former historian at Port Arthur, believes that Tasmania's colonial legacy goes a long way towards explaining two key issues on which the island is out of step with the rest of Australia: its liberal gun laws and its refusal to decriminalise homosexual acts.

The gun lobby, he says, has successfully drawn on attitudes stemming from colonial times against government authority. The anti-gay laws, he suggests, are a reaction by the Tasmanian establishment to the fact that homosexuality flourished in the island's isolated convict prisons. "It's all to do with paranoia and inherited amnesia about the past, and not wanting to confront it," Mr MacFie says. "How do you say, in a small community like this, that your ancestor was a flagellator, a pick-pocket, committed buggery or shot blacks?"

Mr MacFie estimates that about two-thirds of Tasmanians have convict ancestry, yet most have gone to great lengths to repress the "hated stain" because of its violent and supposedly tainted associations. He himself discovered only eight years ago that his ancestor, Teddy MacFie, was a convict after being told that he was a sailor who jumped overboard to save a prisoner.

It was only last year that the Tasmanian government opened to the public for the first time the sites of two 19th century women's prisons, in Hobart and at Ross River. Their existence had never been formally acknowledged. Both were hellholes where many English and Irish women and their children perished.

The past is never far away in Tasmania. Mr MacFie interviewed two elderly brothers in the 1970s who remembered as children seeing men with scarred from floggings at Port Arthur. Staff at Port Arthur have reported seeing apparitions at night and the place still "inhabited". Was it the past crying out last Sunday, when the bullets from a semi-automatic weapon cut down 54 people at Port Arthur, killing 35?

"There was something serendipitous and spiritual that drew that event to that place," said Mr MacFie. "The coincidence is too shocking to be easily dismissed."

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