Visitors are drawn by the UNESCO site's gruesome history, a confronting reminder of our less honourable past. This is the site of Australia’s most notorious penal settlement where young boys and men, transported to Van Diemen’s Land from the other side of the world, were sent upon re-offending. It ran from 1833 until its closure in 1877, and it was here that the brutal punishment by flogging with the ‘cat o’ nine tails’ was changed to an arguably even more brutal form of castigation - psychological torture by solitary confinement. Surrounded by shark-infested waters and accessible only by a narrow isthmus guarded by a chain of vicious dogs, escape was impossible.
Today, many of the restored buildings are open to the public. Despite the brutality, it was not all a tale of sadness and woe. Many of the convicts, some taken from the poverty-stricken streets of London, went on to learn a skill and form richly fulfilling lives, becoming some of Tasmania’s wealthiest landowners. A great many islanders owe their convict ancestors a debt of thanks.
The gardens at Port Arthur are also in stark contrast to the sadness that lies within, and point to another tradition; the garden that was open only to ‘people of the right class’. Surrounded by some of the worst felons in the Empire, it was important to keep up appearances. On Sunday afternoons ladies of the right class would promenade, dressed in their Sunday best. Visitors should remember that these were normal people just like us, who found themselves in an extraordinary circumstance.
Port Arthur is also regarded as one of the most haunted places in the world. The nightly Ghost Tours are conducted by lantern light after the grounds are closed to other visitors and are not for the fainthearted - paranormal activity is frequently reported.