Review: David Cameron delves into the striking contrast between physical setting and monstrous cruelty of convict-era Port Arthur

  • Convict-era Port Arthur, by David W. Cameron. Viking, $34.99.

For the 13,000 convicts punished at Port Arthur, as for the tourists who throng there now, the most striking impression is surely juxtaposition.

A well-preserved, well-kept monument to sadism, imperialism and tyranny is set among verdant English trees, rolling lawns and a charming little bay. Up and down the road are further delights, in the cliffs around Remarkable Cave or the blowhole at Eaglehawk Neck.

That incongruity draws into sharp relief the monstrous cruelty inflicted by thuggish English troops, their compliant colonial sycophants and trusted convict accomplices.

Prisoners working in the coal mines had to drain 700 buckets of water every day from their cramped, sodden, lethal workplace. A heavy plank of wood was attached to the leg irons of convicts who misbehaved. Floggers received more perks and higher status than their fellows.

On strict orders, buildings were constructed without "the slightest degree of ornamental work". Dark cells - that is, pitch black hell-holes - drove inmates mad.

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was locked up, employs only former prisoners as tour guides. Port Arthur has no such luxury, but the structure and function of the penitentiary are comprehensively explained in David Cameron's work.

Cameron, a military historian and trained paleoanthropologist, makes exhaustive use of his sources.

Cameron knows how high semaphore flags had to be positioned from ground level. He comments on butchering marks on wombat bones. He includes the name of the first person buried on the Isle of the Dead (Joseph Kerr).

He remembers a bushranger who wrote, on kangaroo skin in 'roo blood, a list of flowers he wished to grow. Cameron notes sets of appalling statistics, none more grisly than the 33,723 lashes dealt out in the first five years of the prison on Macquarie Harbour.

Other historians might have made this story more dramatic, more evocative or more emotional.

Readers seeking a conspectus of the convict years, including Port Arthur, should still turn to Robert Hughes' wonderfully vivid account, The Fatal Shore.

Those wanting to learn more about the early misadventures of Tasmania are well advised to consult James Boyce's Van Diemen's Land.

Hobart remains littered with place names commemorating the convicts' overseers. Davey Street, for instance, recalls a corrupt, vicious, promiscuous drunk.

Governor Arthur regarded his prison as "a mill for grinding rogues honest". His name might fairly be consigned to infamy and ignominy.

This story Port Arthur: green hills and monstrous cruelty first appeared on The Canberra Times.