“We could have spent two days,” friends told us about the Port Arthur Historic Site. And so we staged ourselves on the Tasman peninsula a day before the original plan so we could maximize our time at one of Australia’s World Heritage sites. There are actually eleven locations that comprise the UNESCO designation of Australia’s convict history and five of them are in Tasmania, with Port Arthur being the largest.
Walking through the perfectly groomed and maintained grounds today it’s hard to imagine the brutal treatment that thousands of convicts were subjected to for the twenty years the station operated.
The entry fee included a guided walking tour of the convict areas, after which we could explore the rest of the settlement on our own, plus a harbor cruise to see the dockyard, the boy’s prison and the Isle of the Dead, where both convicts and free people were interred.
Our guide was young and enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and far more accustomed to the capricious Tassie weather than the tourists in our group. Our changeable conditions continued, bright sun, light rain, gusty wind, seemingly in five-minute increments. I was happy to have my laugh-at-the-weather Kiwi jacket and Jack was sporting a new waterproof jacket he picked up on our second day on the island.
The guide introduced the site with a historical overview and took pains to dispel the myth that most convicts were guilty only of stealing a piece of bread to feed their hungry families. The men sent to Port Arthur, he said, were hardened criminals, repeat offenders from all of Australia’s colonies.
This is also the site of another incident, a more recent one, our guide told us, adding that if we wanted to talk about it he preferred we ask him personally rather than other staff members, as many of them still have “connections” to the event. I was initially puzzled by this, but within seconds it dawned on me.
I knew the story in broad strokes: Australia suffered one mass shooting and reacted within a short period of time to make significant changes to their gun laws and haven’t had another mass shooting since. I had confirmed the facts in the past year to bolster an online political argument and at this moment the bell began to ring. Port Arthur, the location of the shooting. This Port Arthur. Here.
I don’t know if anyone else spoke to the guide about the shooting. I know I didn’t. But as we continued our tour the new knowledge of where we are, both in regards to the shooting and the events of the convict period, opened a deep well in my brain.
We were guided through and around the convict areas and learned about the theory of English prison reformer Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy, along with other contemporaries, proposed to remake prisons into penitentiaries. Instead of just locking up criminals they should be penitent and reformed, in Bentham’s ideas through “discipline and punishment, religious and moral instruction, classification and separation, and training and education.”
Similar ideas were taking hold around the world during this period. In the city of my birth, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the radical new Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 with the same “reform rather than punishment” goal. I have an ancestor who did seven years at Eastern State. Don’t ask.
As our guide described life at Port Arthur, the story veered dizzingly from brutality — punishments of 200 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails — to benevolence — free health care after the whipping! I don’t know whether the patter was written to whitewash or downplay the cruelty or not, or maybe just to make it family friendly, but it was starting to remind me of guides I heard as a child touring slave plantations in the South, about how the owners “took care of” their slaves, providing food and clothing and honest work. I was cringing.
Jack reminded me that it was a cruel time, and told me how much worse it was at sea but still, I was having a visceral reaction to the thought of human beings treating other humans with such cruelty. I imagined the resident flogger whipping a convict to near death, then walking up the hill by dinner time to say grace at the table and tuck into a nice roast and jacket potatoes with his family.
After the introductory walkabout we made our way to the waterfront for a harbor tour. Almost as soon as we were aboard the vessel the sky opened up and dumped a few minutes of pea-sized hail. Could Tassie weather be worse than New Zealand? Maybe. The hail turned into rain and we passengers had to rely on the photos displayed on the TV monitors to see what the tour guide was describing, as the view out the windows was distorted.
By the end of the boat tour we were cold and hungry and headed toward the visitors center for a bite to eat. As we walked the path toward the back entrance a placard caught my eye.
It marked the entrance to the memorial for the shooting in 1996. “I’m going in,” I told Jack, and he made an about face to follow me. Within ten feet of entering the wooded pathway, I was overwhelmed with sadness and burst into tears. Thirty-five people died that day, most of them at this very spot, the location of the previous cafe and gift shop, now demolished but the ruined frame preserved as part of the memorial. I have felt this kind of sorrow before, for example at Gettysburg, where the peaceful beauty of the rolling farmland can’t erase the memory that thousands of mostly young men died a horrible, senseless, lonely death.
But my sadness in Port Arthur came not just for the victims of the deranged shooter, but for my country. When Australians learned of this incident they were horrified and sickened and the leadership sought ways to lessen the likelihood of it ever happening again. Within months they legislated a multipronged approach to reducing gun violence. The American NRA fought hard against it — they represent gun manufacturers who stood to lose revenue from the new laws — but wiser heads prevailed and the tighter restrictions on gun ownership have had the desired effect. Australia has not had a mass shooting since Port Arthur.
In my country there is a mass shooting nearly every other day, in theatres, shopping centers, offices and most tragically, schools. Rather than feeling horror and outrage, Americans shrug and call it Tuesday. “There’s nothing we can do,” they say. “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” they say. “If you take the guns away from the good guys, only bad guys will have guns,” they say. All of these arguments were bandied about by the NRA and others during the debate over Australia’s gun legislation and in the end all of them failed to pass muster. Australians value life without the fear of gun violence more than they value the freedom to amass an arsenal of deadly weapons. And no one with a good reason is prevented from owning a gun.
We stayed in the memorial for the Port Arthur victims feeling the pain the families and friends of the victims live with until the cold and damp sent us reluctantly back to shelter. Upstairs the café was crowded and noisy.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “We can come back later.” As we drove up through the multilevel car park out of the valley and back onto the main road, I felt the anguish lift, leaving me drained but still sad.
If anyone doubts that a nation as diverse in political, cultural and ideological thought as America can come together to make changes for the benefit of all, let them come to Australia and see what humanity and concern for their fellow citizens can do.