Amid southern Tasmania’s prison ruins, the silence many find so serene is the same silence that broke dispirited convicts. By Patricia Maunder.

Port Arthur, Tasmania

The Port Arthur historic site.
The Port Arthur historic site.

Silence isn’t always golden. On a weekday winter’s morning at the Cascades Female Factory, the silence is grey and sobering as I explore this historic Hobart site with a scattering of other tourists.

When it was a place of incarceration and hard labour for female convicts from 1828 to 1856, communication, even with oneself, was forbidden during the punishment of solitary confinement. For a significant period, this ban also applied throughout the institution as a routine means of discipline and reform. Walking among its remnant structures – mostly high stone walls surrounding a series of stark yards – I imagine that era’s oppressive silence while a guide relates stories from the archives.

How “a dead silence was everywhere observed” by a visiting official in 1851, who went on to describe the nursery’s “60 women, with as many babies … all silent. One would have thought them all deaf and dumb.” How deplorable conditions meant that many inmates’ children were permanently silenced in infancy, or deemed “retarded” by the orphanages they were removed to at age three. Having grown up in a wordless world, they were of course mute and uncomprehending.

The Cascades Female Factory, an easy stroll from the historic Cascade Brewery, is one of 11 places comprising the Australian Convict Sites UNESCO World Heritage List. Stretching across the continent, from Fremantle to Norfolk Island, they are concentrated in Sydney and Tasmania, and include the Brickendon and Woolmers estates near Launceston.

The 2010 UNESCO listing confirmed a significant change in Australia’s attitude to its convict past. The fact that more than 160,000 men, women and children were transported here between 1788 and 1868 was shrouded in shameful silence until a few generations ago. Van Diemen’s Land was rebranded Tasmania after transportation ceased, and the Port Arthur penal settlement became the town of Carnarvon when the last frail inmates were removed.

Port Arthur once more, it’s the most visited among the UNESCO convict sites. In addition to the several hundred thousand people who arrive by car and bus each year, cruise ships are entering its deep harbour with increasing frequency: 22 delivered 40,000 passengers last summer. An extensive new visitor centre is due to open in December. The distant sound of its construction hovers at the edge of consciousness as I wander this tranquil, sprawling site. The hordes are many weeks away and, while winter visitor numbers are still significant, those around me maintain a respectful quiet. On a sunny, almost warm day, quite different to my female factory experience, I’m less engrossed by tales of past woes than the tumbledown Georgian architecture, so picturesque against the gentle green landscape and still, inky-blue waters.

The first structure I encounter could hardly be more peaceful: pointed stone walls and spires, the remnants of a church, now with a mackerel-sky roof and grass floor. There’s an intact guard tower with a modest, crenulated crown, and the cottages of officers and officials, complete with simple period furnishings. The site’s largest structure, originally a granary, was converted into a series of small cells, wide open to the light in their current ruined state.

With modern fishing boats bobbing before them, and heavily wooded hills rising behind, these historic buildings form a pretty picture from the harbour tour boat. After circling the Isle of the Dead, crammed with the bodies of more than 1000 people, convict and free, it continues to Point Puer Boys’ Prison.

I disembark for a guided tour, among minimal ruins that once formed the British empire’s first juvenile prison. The scrubby vegetation is unappealing, but a narrow beach of almost-white sand looks inviting. Apparently convict lads, who were as young as nine, were forbidden from playing there.

By midafternoon, as Port Arthur’s old sandstone walls glow in the sunlight, the near-silence is almost golden, until my wanderings take me to the Separate Prison. Up to this point, I hadn’t been oblivious to the suffering endured by Port Arthur’s convicts. Meagre rations and hard labour interspersed with brutal floggings was a routine made quietly apparent by guides and interpretive signs around the site.

At the Separate Prison I again sense the cruel, gloomy silence that smothers the soul. Completed in 1850, it was built as part of the empire’s move towards penitentiaries – places intended to inspire penitence through isolation and silence. Its tenets were introduced elsewhere, including Van Diemen’s Land’s female factories, but at Port Arthur’s purpose-built prison, the implementation was absolute and a common result was madness.

I enter the whitewashed central hall, from which four wings radiate: three long corridors of cells and a smaller wing formed by the chapel. Inside a refurbished cell are the meanest basics of life, including a hammock, tiny table, stool and bucket. It’s not big enough to swing a cat, yet inmates spent 23 hours a day here, with a Bible their only companion. I pull a cable inside the cell door, which swings a little metal flag outward in the corridor. This was the silent system that alerted officers in the central hall to prisoners in distress.

Information displayed around the prison reveals more cruel and unusual punishments then considered enlightened discipline and reform. The silence required was so extreme that guards wore felt slippers and communicated by sign language. Inmates wore masks when being moved around – to the exercise yard, for example, where they shuffled alone for an hour each day.

Or to the chapel. Unlike any place of worship I’ve encountered, its steeply tiered pews are separated into isolated cubicles. Standing inside one, looking at the bare walls and plain pulpit ahead, I wonder if convicts found joy listening to the chaplain drone about eternal damnation, or singing sober hymns with their unseen fellows. Sounds, words, at last! Or just another kind of misery?

After a few moments in the black silence of the “dumb cell”, where rule-breakers were confined for days as punishment, I make a break for normality. There’s just enough daylight to visit the Coal Mines historic site, a short detour off the road back to Hobart.

Operating from 1833 to 1848, it was reportedly where the “worst-of-the-worst” were sent. Now a free, open-air museum, and part of the UNESCO listing, this jumble of ruins among bushland overlooks Little Norfolk Bay. There’s not another soul around as I wander among cascades of bricks and remnant sandstone walls, varying from creamy-white through yellow and patches of terracotta red. Several little cells still stand, more or less, now open to the fading light, but once dark hell holes that offered little respite for men who toiled in the cramped mines below.

I regret not arriving earlier, to explore more ruins along this extensive site’s trails. Next time, I think, as the bay, still as a pond, turns lilac in the daylight’s final minutes. The silence is perfect on this little-known patch of the Tasman Peninsula. Did the convicts have any moments of peace to recognise the beauty here, or was this place always remote and hostile for them?

I hurry away before darkness descends, grateful I’ve never experienced the miserable silence that broke the heart and mind of many a Van Diemen’s Land convict.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Grounds of silence".

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Patricia Maunder is a writer, editor and broadcaster based in Melbourne.

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