Tasmania was one of the main places convicts were sent. It had the name Van Diemens land which sounds really devilish and scary, as if you were about to be sent into the fiery pits of hell. Actually Abel Tasman (who was Dutch) the first explorer to land there named it after his sponsor Anthony Van Diemen. It was the British who wanted to spice it up a bit and so they shortened it Van Diemen’s Land!
They seem to have quite a history of being indecisive and renaming things in Tasmania. After a while of living in Van Diemen’s land they decided it wasn’t the most inviting name after all and changed it to Tasmania after good old Abel Tasman. Later on they tried to wipe away the ‘convict stain’ by renaming Port Arthur to Carnavon. Which sounds to me a bit like a British seaside holiday resort in which you’d find cheerful red coats trying to get you to try archery or abseiling! Carnavon however didn’t stick because once the government realised that there was money to be made by taking people on tours they changed it back to Port Arthur. They had quite a challenge getting the land back thought because in their short sightedness they had sold it all off at auction thinking no one would be interested in the place!
Port Arthurs great attraction as a penal colony was that it was very hard to escape from. It is shaped a bit like a wine bottle and the only way off is through the neck. The largest building in the colony was the grain store and flour mill. They built this great wheel to grind the corn into flour, they even made a series of pipes to bring the water down to the wheel. This work great until summer came, and the water dried up, so some bright spark decided they used the next best thing, the prisoners! At this point I have an image of the prisoners running round in a large hamster wheel, growing wiskers and hording food in their cheeks! That idea wasn’t very successful either so they gave up with it and made the place into cells instead.
Port Arthur was one of the first places in the world where they actually tried to rehabilitate prisoners instead of just thinking they were born bad. They were given skills to use once they were released. This makes the place sound all warm and fuzzy, but it was also the site of one of the worst psychological traumas humankind has come up with to use on each other. Known in Port Arthur as the Separate prison they put you in a padded cell for 23 hours a day. To make it worse you heard no sounds at all, even the guards wore slippers so you couldn’t hear them. There were no clocks and even when you went to church you were put in a coffin like device so you could only see forwards , meaning the only person you ever saw was the preacher! The separate prison idea came from Philadelphia , where they still use it!
Port Arthur stopped working as a prison when they ran out of prisoners. Then they started taking in backpackers and all their problems were solved! Not really, but with the decline of prisoner transportation there was no one to undertake the jobs in the colony and the only people left were the ones in the lunatic asylum, and the prisoners too old to undertake work. So the place fell into decline and the governors house was used as a hotel for a while. I’m not sure I would have wanted to stay there, they had a hidden bar which you had to find if you wanted to get a drink, too much like hard work if you ask me!