Death and Darkness Down Under: Twisted Tales from Australia's Convict Past

Going to school in Australia, my history lessons were full of convicts and early settlers. As kids, we learned of our country's past by singing songs like Botany Bay and Ten Thousand Miles Away. Because stick a few chords beneath a story and anything becomes less horrific...

While I always knew Australia was founded on plenty of blood and hardship, researching my current work-in-progress, Forgotten Places led me to discover some really dark and twisted tales from my country's history. Here are a few from Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) where the book is set:

The Ladies of Macquarie Harbour

Until 1833, the worst convicts were shipped through a whirlpool of water called Hell's Gates into Macquarie Harbour and the Sarah Island penal settlement on Tasmania's isolated west coast. Surrounded by nothing but ocean and nearly impenetrable bush, the place must truly have felt like the end of the earth. The settlement opened in 1822 and among the predominantly male population were eight convicted women who lived in barracks on this tiny rock known as Grummet Island. The presence of the women, predictably, caused nothing but trouble.

Abuse at the hands of the guards was prevalent, but it seems the convict women were not always innocent victims. Prisoner Jane Davis, sent to Sarah Island with her husband, was sentenced to "wash forty prisoners' shirts daily" for sending improper messages to the assistant surgeon, while Sarah Simmons was sent back to Hobart for having an affair with an officer.

The female convicts were removed a few years later and Grummet Island became a place of punishment for the men. They would be forced to wade out to the island and spend the night there, alone and wet, before wading back to the settlement the next morning.

Billy Hunt's Great Escape

Macquarie Harbour's isolation led to its abandonment in 1833 and Port Arthur, closer to Hobart became the colony's premier site for secondary punishment. Separated from the rest of Tasmania by a thin strip of land known as Eaglehawk Neck, Port Arthur was considered as impenetrable as Sarah Island, but that didn't stop the occasional escape attempt.

One of the more ill-advised came from convict Billy Hunt who hid himself beneath a kangaroo skin and attempted to hop his way to freedom. His plan was foiled, however, when soldiers raised their guns on him, looking for a little extra meat to supplement the night's supper! Hunt surrendered and received150 lashes for his troubles.


Murder in the Church

The gothic-style church at Port Arthur was built in 1835 in the hope it would encourage inmates to become better citizens. But while laying the foundations of the building, William Riley took his pick-axe to the head of fellow convict Joseph Shuttleworth, killing him instantly. The attack was unprovoked and seemingly inexplicable.

But this was the God-fearing nineteenth century and many believed suicide would lead to eternal damnation.

Throughout Australia's convict years, there were several accounts of prisoners making murder pacts to escape the hell of convicted life. Punishment for murder was hanging, giving both men death without committing the unrepentable sin of suicide. Is it possible Riley and Shuttleworth made such a pact?

Today, many believe Port Arthur to be the most haunted place in Tasmania and, with such a dark and brutal history, it is easy to see why.

In the Forests Outside Sarah Island...

This poor, dead fellow is Alexander Pearce who, along with seven other convicts, escaped into the bush surrounding Macquarie Harbour in 1822. Pearce's tale is one of the most horrific to come out of Australia's convict era and features heavily in my novel Forgotten Places. But that's another story for another day...

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