Very little evidence of the trauma of incarceration is transmitted from the buildings gracing the manicured gardens. The whitewashed prison walls have successful erased the memories of the past and the void which once was the main prisoner accommodation, with its metal scaffolded walkway, provides no inkling of past trauma.
The decaying Gothic ruins of Port Arthur, in its ambient surroundings, had once been a site of ‘incarceration, domination and subjugation, a place of cruelty, depravity, brutality and desperation’ for 12,000 convicts. With the passage of time and squeaky-clean conservation, ‘the dark past which occurred within the prison has been almost completely obliterated to make way for a tourist asset’.
Sadly, today, Port Arthur carries a more recent and darker scar. It is the site of the shooting massacre in 1996 when 35 people were killed and 23 wounded. And whether we like it or not, this event is now permanently etched into Tasmania’s history. For some time after the event, the effects of the trauma were acute and ‘the Port Arthur Historic Site shifted from being Tasmania’s top tourist attraction to a place to be avoided’.
Sarah Island – Convict settlement - Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania
So why visit the old trauma site? Perhaps in search of personal convict connections or to experience the infamous site made famous by Marcus Clarke’s classic Australian novel, For the Term of his Natural Life. I would argue, however, that most visitors do not go specifically to visit Sarah Island but that their attendance is an obligatory component as part of the cruise on Macquarie Harbour to the lower reaches of the Gordon River. With only 45 minute ashore and a guided walk over the main settlement area, I doubt few tourist come away with a sense of the deprivation and trauma which the convicts suffered. While the guide was talking, I noted that few visitors stopped to read the sign:Flagellation: In 1823 under Commander Cuthbertson – who according to one account was ‘a sadistic bully with peculiar qualities’ 9,100 lashes were given with the ‘Macquarie Harbour Cat’, which was heavier than that used by the army or navy.
Close by, the cyclone wire around the top of the solitary confinement cells quickly dispelled thoughts of heritage (for me), and if that was not sufficient, a short role-play presentation, in which one visitor was designated to be Matthew Brady – the Gentleman Bushranger – was delivered in a jocular vein trivialising both history and character. Nevertheless, most visitors enjoyed the entertainment.
In conclusion, we conserve places of trauma for various reasons – to preserve heritage, to memorialize events, to salve the political conscience or for financial gain. From the sites examined, it is evident that calculated and ‘informed’ decisions are made by government organisation and museum curators. The results can be confrontational or appear trivial.
At some stage in each of our lives we are all touched by trauma, but by sharing and conserving our experiences we are able to acknowledge the loss, recognise the past and move forward, while permitting the dark memories to slide and eventually pale into insignificance within the grey mists of time.
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