Friday, September 05, 2014

DARK TOURISM - Part 3 - Tasmania’s trauma sites

Port Arthur and Sarah Island – spanning the spectrum of light to dark

Australia’s traumatic heritage, though pale in comparison with that of Rwanda or Cambodia, cannot be wiped from the history books. Over the past two centuries, perceptions of convict trauma included periods of shame, rejection, ignorance and acceptance. Port Arthur and Sarah Island are two of Tasmania’s best known sites of convict confinement and these have been conserved as part of Australia’s rich heritage, (sadly Australia fails to show equal respect for its ancient Aboriginal trauma history).  Both of these trauma sites rate on the scale of Dark Tourism but present at varying points on the scale.

Port Arthur
After bushfires devastated Port Arthur in 1895 and 1897, the structures which remained standing were cleaned, conserved and prettied-up and today Port Arthur is the most visited convict site in Tasmania. It attracts 300,000 visitors a year who come for various reasons – to appreciate the convict history of Van Diemen’s Land and learn more of the history of colonization. Others visit Port Arthur merely to enjoy a family outing.

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’.
Yet to step aboard the local tourist vessel and motor across the bay to the Isle of the Dead is like sliding down the ladder of thanotourism. Stepping ashore and being confronted by the mounds and gravestones of 1769 prisoners, artisans and guards who were buried here, one senses mortality and authenticity. The site is overgrown and little obvious conservation has been done. In order to visit the Isle of the Dead visitors must make a conscious effort by purchasing a ticket. These aspects of the Port Arthur site plus the following item make up the ‘emotional dichotomy of Port Arthur’.

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’. 
But eighteen years after this event, with the help of time and conservation, the trauma has been shifted down a notch. The walls of the Broad Arrow Café have been preserved and a Huon Pine cross offers a place for prayers alongside a pool of remembrance. Today, few people would visit Port Arthur specifically to see the memorial to those who died, however, there are still staff members working there who witnessed the atrocity, and there are thousands of people indirectly connected with the six hundred visitors and numerous emergency service personnel who were at the site on that fateful day. The need to conserve this site is essential.

Sarah Island – Convict settlement - Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania
In contrast to Port Arthur, there was little to conserve on Sarah Island after the settlement was abandoned, and today all that remains are a few crumbling walls and piles of hand-made bricks and rubble, now overgrown with grass and moss. Historically, Sarah Island or Settlement Island was the darkest of the Tasmanian penal settlements – a Hell on Earth for the prisoners sent there. Not only were the punishments sadistic, but the conditions the men endured were deplorable.

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.
Erica Robb commented that, ‘Sites elicit different responses – [and the] experience is not uniform but subjective’.  My personal reason for visiting Sarah Island was in an attempt to embrace the atmosphere of the island and, not being satisfied with the sanitized superficial presentation, I repeated the trip the following day and spent time investigating a little used track which led to the far end of the island. Here, through the undergrowth, I was able to glimpse Grummet (Small) Island, feel the blast of the wind and imagine the trauma of the men, shackled and freezing in sodden clothing trying to survive on that isolated outcrop of rock. 

No doubt, some visitors (like me) go to trauma sites in an attempt to recapture the scene but come away disappointed because promoters sanitize the past by presenting it as a form of entertainment. ‘Where heritage is involved, collective amnesia is common’.  I think this would apply to most tourists visiting Sarah Island.

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.
It has been said that ‘tourism and heritage are complex human phenomena’ producing a complex multi-layered dialogue, and the reason tourists visit places of trauma is equally variable. For some it is a pilgrimage to a site of remembrance, or it may be an attempt to reach back to recapture the lives and times of predecessors.

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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References available – pics by author (apart from flagellation)


Anonymous said...

Interesting and finely articulated article. I cant help but feel there is a level of disrespect trivialising some of these spots, considering what many had endured there.
To stand in that place and laugh seems like a final act of cruelty to those who where incarcerated, who served more than their worth of "justice".

M. C. Muir said...

Thank you for your comment. I agree. For many visiting Dark Tourism sites - even the more extreme ones, if often a case of ticking another destination off the Bucket List.
On the other hand, sites such as Port Arthur and the remains of the convict areas on Norfolk Island are manicured and sanitized and it is hard to conceive the trauma that was experienced there by many two centuries ago.
Regards, MM