The next, and last stop on our Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour Cruise, was the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island, Tasmania’s first convict settlement. In January 1822, 14 convicts arrived on Sarah Island, the first of nearly 2000 incarcerated here over 12 years. Sarah Island was situated far from other convict settlements and being in a barren harbour, in a mountainous wilderness, surrounded by treacherous seas, with the only access by sea through Hells Gate’s, it was ideally sited for a penal settlement. However, at only 15 acres, with no fresh water and poor soil, all supplies had to be shipped in. Sarah Island gained the reputation as the severest convict station in Australia at the time. It took only the most seasoned convicts, mostly those who offended for a second time, or had escaped from other settlements. The convicts lived in extreme deprivation, so malnutrition and disease were commonplace. There was hard, forced labour, and gangs of convicts rowed back and forth to the Gordon River every day, to fell and haul huon pine for boat building, often waist deep in icy water. With harsh punishment meted out for minor misdemeanors, it was ‘a place of depravity, degradation and woe’.
While initially Sarah Island was one of the severest penal settlements, in later years, with a change of leadership, it became the site of one of Australia’s largest shipbuilding yards, although still using convict labour. In total, 131 vessels were built at Sarah Island, 80 of them in the last four years before the settlement was closed in 1833/4, and a new penal settlement was established at Port Arthur.
We walked around the island, following a very informative guide, and saw the ruins of buildings, including the gaol, with cells for solitary confinement, a bakehouse with ‘Sussex style’ oven, a later penitentiary, which served as a dormitory and of course the shipyard.
To me, Sarah Island felt sort of tired and desolate, ravaged and scarred by inhumanity. Some vegetation has regrown on the island, as if trying to blur the edges of the past. But it must be remembered that the island and ruins have witnessed some of the greatest perpetration of suffering and hardship that a man can endure.