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Sarah Island: A place of ultra-banishment and punishment

by Jack and Jude 19 Mar 2018 13:09 UTC
Sarah Island lies 18 N.Miles south of Strahan ©

Only ruins remain of the convict settlement on Sarah Island, which lies 18 miles south of Strahan in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast. Established by Governor Sorell in 1822 as a “Place of ultra-banishment and punishment for convicts who had committed further crimes in the colony.” A colony where convicts outnumbered free settlers and many absconded to become bushrangers.

The ruins, exposed to the harsh environment, have deteriorated a great deal, and they were further damaged by vandalism after Strahan was settled in the 1880s, the result of the need for building materials and the shame Tasmanians felt for their convict past.

The Sarah Island prison was established to terrorize the convicts into docile subservience and supply the colony with Huon Pine and coal. Standing orders to its first commandant, Lt John Cuthbertson stated, “Constant, active, and unremitting hard labour is the main design of your settlement.”

To open the new penal settlement, a total of 110 persons were sent to Macquarie Harbour, 44 of bad character and incorrigible conduct, 22 convict tradesmen and eight female convicts accompanied by a military detachment of 17 with three wives and 11 children, with four officers in charge.

Punishment and escape
Under the threat of the lash, often in irons and usually on short rations, the prisoners suffered to bring log rafts from the lower reaches of the river to Sarah Island where the logs were grappled ashore, convicts spending hours up to their waists in icy water. Once there they were pit sawn into frames and planks to build ships for the Government. A life most brutal in scenery so grand, resulting in 131 vessels built at the station in 12 years.

Escape from Macquarie Harbour was seen to be impossible, nevertheless escape did occur. Of the 112 men who tried to escape, 62 perished in the bush, and 9 were eaten by their companions.

Punishment was severe, even for minor offenses. Insubordination, losing or breaking tools brought 50 lashes and three months in irons in the cramped jail. Further punishment was to be left on Grummet Island, a 50 foot high rock half a mile off of Sarah Island where prisoners slept in wet cold conditions.

In 1831, Governor Arthur made the decision to close down the prison, mainly because of the dangerous entrance to the harbour. Since its closure in 1833, in an atmosphere of timeless peace, the effect of rain and regrowth of the forest has restored the large trees and green carpets of moss where the brief terror and suffering of the British Empire had reigned.

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