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Two people sitting in front of ruins Port Arthur

Tasmania's Convict History

They might not be pretty, but Tasmania's convict stories are a compelling and vital part of Australia's history. To early British settlers, Van Diemen's Land (as they called Tasmania) was the end of the world – an ideal location for some of their government's largest and most notorious penal colonies.

Thinking of Australia as a place to transport their over-sized prison population, the British sent more than 165,000 convicts to the colonies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first Tasmanian jail was built at Risdon Cove in 1803, but in 1804 the prisoners were moved to Sullivans Cove – soon to be known as Hobart.

After a decade or so, the Macquarie Harbour penal colony was established as a work house on Tasmania's west coast where convicts logged the Huon pine forests for ship building and furniture making. Renowned even among Britons at the time as a particularly harsh prison, it's remembered as the site of doomed escapes by convicts who drowned, starved or resorted to cannibalism in the surrounding bushland.

Compared to the regular floggings dished out for minor infractions at Macquarie Harbour, the solitary confinement enforced at Port Arthur penal settlement was seen as a more humane approach to inmate management. Replacing the west coast workhouse, Port Arthur housed hardened criminals and juvenile convicts until 1853. A precursor to America's Alcatraz Island, it's situated at the southern tip of Tasmania on a peninsula surrounded by what were rumoured to be shark-infested waters.

Few attempted escape and even fewer succeeded. A fellow named George 'Billy' Hunt disguised himself using a kangaroo hide and tried to make a hop for freedom, but the half-starved guards on duty decided to shoot him for food. Hunt threw off his 'roo' disguise and surrendered, receiving 150 lashes for his troubles. Today, the Port Arthur Historic Site harbours a trove of these stories and offers regular tours of the grounds and buildings. You can even look up your own convict roots in the study centre.

Many more of Tasmania's penal sites have been maintained as museums and educational centres, offering fascinating and thought provoking reminders of our punishing past. The Cascades Female Factory in South Hobart is one of the few female convict facilities still standing, with historical theatre shows running daily. Darlington Probation Station, situated within Maria Island National Park on Tasmania's East Coast, is surrounded by bushland that has remained unchanged since the convict era. The Coal Mines Historic Site once held 500 of the 'worst class' of convicts – who laboured underground, rarely sighting the tranquil waters beyond their prison at Little Norfolk Bay.

It's difficult to imagine such a scenic location being the site of so much hardship – and often in penance for crimes as petty as stealing a loaf of bread. It wasn't until the advent of the Probation System in the early 1840s – which allowed former prisoners to work for wages in surrounding districts – that our criminal ancestors were able to begin to enjoy their new home at end of the world.