Discovering Tasmania’s past
In my formative years I struggled between my love for bridges and my interest in history. Finding the right balance was not achieved until well into the third decade of my life, well beyond the timeline in which any decent male should find a way to make a living and equalize his duty with an appropriate hobby for the rest of his life. Only after I found my partner for life, an educated art historian, our breakfast and dinner discussions were properly balanced, until the engineering aspects were brought to a minimum. Our travels always included both— spectacular engineering feats and historic places. My wife’s excellent writing capabilities improved my writing and kept my engineering exposés in check. Through her vicious editing I hope to avoid becoming too boring, though sometimes I have to follow her simple advice, “Just forget it!”
Tasmania is an incredibly attractive subject for me because it represents Australian story in a nutshell. You can trace the roots of European/Anglo colonization of Australia from early Discoveries and into first settlements as a British penal colony through developments in Tasmania. Here my interest in history was well satiated with the interests, policies and deeds of European powers.
Barely an hour’s flight from Melbourne, Tasmania seems hardly more than an afterthought in the context of the whole Australia. Today it has a population of only about half a million with almost half of that number living in its capital— Hobart. Hobart is the third deepest harbor in the world, making it a natural point of entry to Tasmania from anywhere else, which nowadays is almost always just from Australian mainland. It is a pleasant city of single family houses made of red bricks or wood with low pitched roofs, giving it a feel of a quiet, small English town with neat gardens and grocery stores and occasional fish and chips establishment sprinkled in between.
We found ourselves well adjusted after a few peaceful days, sleeping late until the laughter and cries of children walking to school woke us up. Then we spent our leisurely late breakfast chatting with our host Jenny, going through the list of items such as my kids, your kids, my grandkids, your grandkids, how does the garden grow, where to go today and what to see tomorrow.
Drinking and planing with Jenny and her neighbor
And how much is a litter of gas? Wait a minute, what? Oh, you call it petrol… The same routine followed our dinners, but discussions were deeper with the help of good Tasmanian wine or whiskey that Peter, Jenny’s husband, provided in good measure. My family skeleton in the closet, your family skeleton in the closet, who is your PM, what kind of a (crazy) guy is your President, how is your health care functioning, what is the cost of your education, and what are the unspoken issues of the convict and Aboriginal history of Tasmania.
As a boy I spent days reading books about travelers discovering islands, mountains, rivers, lakes, tribes, and establishing trade routes to bring all the exotic products to Europe. So please bear with me and digest a few (for me) interesting facts of Tasmania. Soon after Europeans sighted a new land in early 1600s and named it Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown Land of the South) Tasmania was discovered, if we can really call it “discovered”, as it was just a brief sighting thanks to bad weather, by, guess who— Abel Tasman, of course! What Tasman saw as a promising anchorage before the upcoming storm prevented him to land, he named, you guessed it, Storm Bay.
Da Famous Bay
Some twenty years after Pilgrims started in earnest their colonization of North America, Tasman discovered many places down under in southwestern Pacific, and gave them his name. But not this Island. As a great navigator but even greater politician he named it after his financial patron Mr. Van Diemen, then Governor of Dutch East Indian Company. He called it, guess what— Van Diemen Land. Thus Tasman tried to entice the Dutch, but they did not follow upon Abel’s discoveries. They probably saw more monies in the Spice island and others in the East Indies than in this cold Island in the middle of nowhere.
Therefore Tasmania had to wait for almost fifty years for the first real visit. This time by a Frenchman, Bruni D’Entrecastaux. This gentlemen paid more attention and realized the true potential of this island. Monsieur D’E… knew that Tasman tried to land in a beautiful bay, but in the best French tradition he made a navigational error. He went to bed after a good dinner, likely accompanied by good French wine and his crew got his marching orders wrong. When he woke up, he found his ship on the well protected western, instead of stormy eastern side of what was a small island off the coast of the Van Diemen Land. Thus while sleeping soundly he discovered a wonderful channel leading his ship safely to Hobart Harbour. He celebrated his major historical accomplishment by naming the island, guess what— Bruni (after his first name) and the channel, you guessed it, D’Entrecastaux Channel. You cannot be too modest at the time of great discoveries, wouldn’t you say so? And who knew the great inventions and discoveries in the history of humankind can be made while sleeping in your cabin?! Why don’t they teach this method in schools anymore?
Turn the pages of history by another three quarters of the century and you will find in the vicinity of this bay which both Tasman and D’Entrecastaux did not land on, the most famous seafarer in the Pacific Ocean’s history, Captain Cook on his Second Voyage. Well, guess what, he didn’t make it either. His HMS Resolution got separated from the sister ship Adventure, guided by captain Tobias Furneaux. Furneaux was the one who set his anchor here and renamed the bay after his ship— the Adventure Bay.
He described the bay in his log in such glowing terms as an excellent anchorage for resupplying vessels (fresh water, kangaroo meat, berries!) that all his followers in South Australian waters, including me, were more than keen to stop here. Captain Cook finally stopped here and watered his Resolution during his Third Voyage.
Limited kangaroos, plenty of berries
I have followed Cook to quite a few of his landing places in the Pacific. The Cape Perpetua in Oregon, the Cape Kidnappers on New Zealand and the Waimea Beach on the island of Kuaui, Hawaii, where he was ultimately killed. But none of the places Cook blessed with his presence saw so many famous seafarers in the history of Pacific Discoveries as Adventure Bay.
Let me mention just one more. As the first sail master on the Cook’s Third Voyage, a guy named William Bligh landed here. If any of you know Captain Bligh, it is thanks to the Bounty mutiny, which put him into a small boat with his 20 loyalists and let him find a way to survive. But he was a survivor at his best. He made it to Timor and then back to England. After his naval career ended he was appointed Governor of New South Wales, whole of Eastern Australia. His appointment? To clean up the corrupt rum trade in Sydney! We visited Sydney lately and let me tell you, after seeing the wild street parties during our weekend there, we could quickly determine Governor Bligh must have had an impossible task. No wonder it did not take long and the new Governor had another mutiny, this time called the Rum Rebellion, on his hands and was swiftly deposed by Sydney rum lobby. As an ex Governor he was sent to ponder upon his unpopular actions to, guess where—the Adventure Bay!!! And Sydney partying could go on ever since.
I could not wait to visit the Adventure Bay. It was quite important for me to see the place I encountered so many times in my reading. It grew in my mind into a monumental location. As it happens in life, it turned out to be quite an unassuming place, of immense natural beauty nevertheless, but without any reminders of those glorious times. Finally, after searching the dead end road to Adventure Bay I discovered a small memorial brass plaque mounted on the rock, marking a place where a tree with Cook’s name and date of his visit stood. It was some 241 years and 16 days later that I made it.
A small museum nearby, barely the size of our living room, keeps the remains of the Cook’s Tree. With it also a huge treasure trove of documents on the Pacific Discovery period, as well as the heroic attempts to reach South Pole with Scott’s, Amundsen’s, and Shackleton’s memorabilia. If you are a history buff like me, please allocate more time for your visit. It is worthy, and the entry costs just AUS$4 for an adult. If you can prove you are senior enough, a discounted entry of just AUS$3 will get you in. Unfortunately no photography is allowed on the premises. Very bitter to digest.
Well, the Adventure Bay was just one of the birthing elements in Australian history. Those Discovery Voyages opened the continent, then only sparsely populated by local Aboriginal tribes. There was never a mass migration of Europeans to Australia on the scale we witnessed in North America. But still Anglo culture dominates Australia and the question is, how did it happen?
Here’s the story: After the end of American War of Independence Britain lost the place to send its convicts from over crowded British prisons. Specially the repeat offenders, who qualified for extra harsh treatment. The British government addressed this issue by simply shipping those dangerous convicts to different parts of Australia, claimed by Cook for the British crown. Tasmania built the largest prison with maximum number of convicts— over one and half thousands at its peak in the late 1840s.
Port Arthur prison ruins
The place chosen for the prison was barely thirty miles east from Adventure Bay as the crow flies on Tasman Peninsula, a piece of land connected to Tasmania proper by less than one hundred foot wide isthmus called Eaglehawk Neck.
The isthmus protected by dozen or more chained vicious dogs created a natural environment for a fenceless prison, now the World Heritage site – Port Arthur. Together with (largely exaggerated) stories of shark infested waters around the Peninsula, it was an ideal place to limit convicts’ appetite for escape. Still, there were attempts through this no-man dog land. One convict tried to flee wearing a kangaroo skin and he hoped that hopping through the dog line could bring him to his freedom. It worked until one of the starving soldiers (you can imagine how bad the diet of the soldiers must have been, too) decided to improve his food supply by fresh kangaroo steak. He lifted his rifle and to his surprise, you guessed it, the kangaroo yelled, “Stop, I am not a kangaroo!” That was the end of the escape attempt and poor chap was convicted to 150 lashes. With extra points for his creativity. When he lost his consciousness, the punishment was temporarily postponed, until convict’s injuries were found by the prison’s doctor “healed” to such extent that the rest of the punishment could be completed.
Port Arthur was a model for a well run prison and many penal reforms of that time. Very quickly it became largely self sufficient, making money for its own operation by digging coal, logging (some of the gum trees logged then had trunk circumference of 24 feet, unheard of today, and more than three ships with timber were leaving Port Arthur for Hobart a week) , and also ship building. Putting underage convicts, some merely boys, on a separate island Point Puer and teaching them trades was another first and a successful model for prison reforms in the whole of British Empire.
The Guard Tower built by the Puer boys
The logistics of running large penal colony was difficult and it was a sort of prison for the soldiers guarding Port Arthur, too. You keep wondering how did they feel and if the difference between convicts and soldiers was really that great. For example out of more than one hundred soldiers only 14 were allowed to bring their wives. All prisoners were males only. Female convicts were sent to a separate prison closer to the capital of Hobart or they were sent out to farms to help the farming families. Fourteen women among one thousand plus men must have created very interested dynamics no matter whose wives they were.
My feelings coming here were certainly mixed. Why would anyone want to crawl through an abandoned prison? What may have been normal treatment of convicts then, is seen as a terribly cruel punishment now. But we were time and again encouraged to go and as we descended from the beautiful Visitor Center into a park like setting with a lovely rose garden and behind it well preserved castle-like ruins of the prison with the blood of convicts carefully washed and sanitized, it felt almost a pleasant place to spend a Sunday afternoon!
The Rose Garden
And next to it the remains of the church where convicts were summoned to mandatory Sunday services, reminded me of our trip to St. Andrews in Scotland, and its own very romantic ruins. The only part missing here was a golf course! “It must be a joke! Is this really what was supposed to be one of the most cruel prisons in South Pacific?”
The remnants of the church, destroyed by fire
And what happened to those prisoners surviving the long terms served in Port Arthur?
In the best judicial intentions everybody was then free to go! Guess where? Anywhere they wanted. How? Well, that was their problem! But returning to Motherland on the River Thames was rarely practical. While convict transportation tab for a trip to Australia was picked up by His Majesty’s Government, the return ticket was ex-convict responsibility. So they stayed and found another ex convict female and because they were lacking, often a local Aboriginal woman. And here we are! No wonder that many (the scientific estimates supported by DNA testing put that number at 74%!) Tasmanians can track their pedigree as descendants of those early convicts. Are they ashamed of it? Not at all! Some of them may be silent about it but many others carry their convict roots as the Red Badge of Courage! After all, it really took some guts and perseverance to make it in those early times.
There is another sad chapter of the Port Arthur story. After proclamation of the World Heritage Site and becoming a major tourist attraction another defining moment in the young history of Australia occurred on Sunday morning, April 28, 1996. A young Hobart man armed himself with three high powered firearms and ammunition and then drove to Port Arthur. During the rest of that sunny afternoon and following night he killed thirty five (35) people! Only then he was captured by police.
A vigorous discussion followed which was marked by strongly held views on both sides.
Does it sound familiar?
Because of this single terrible event the Australian people said never again and the Government passed new gun control laws, that are among the strictest in the world. And, guess what— they never had another mass shooting again.
You have to admire those Aussies.