From Heritage Landing on the Gordon River, our boat took us back down to Macquarie Harbour and across to the southern shoreline to Sarah Island. As mentioned earlier, James Kelly on his circumnavigation of Tasmania in 1815 entered Macquarie Harbour and reported on Sarah Island to his colonial superiors. It was only seven years later that the same colonial government decided that they needed a more severe place than Hobart to take reoffending convicts. So by 1822, Sarah island became the place for the harshest punishment of convicts in any of the Australian colonies. There were a small number of female convicts sent to Macquarie Harbour but they had to be kept on nearby Grummet Island in a cave “for their own safety”.
The map below shows Sarah Island with an outline of the remaining walls and structures. After having only survived for 11 years, the settlement quickly fell into ruin and in the latter years of the 19th century became a place for new settlers in the area to pillage for building materials.
The image to the left shows Sarah Island with its long jetty for tour boats to pull up at. There was nothing harsh about our visit traipsing around the ruins of this old site of Australia’s savage beginnings. As usual the information boards provided excellent information. A lot of the illustrated information boards depended on details of the settlement captured by convict, water-colour painters who were sent to Sarah Island. The painting below was painted by William Gould. He was no ordinary artist; his Gould’s Sketchbook of fishes was inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register at a ceremony in Hobart on 1 April 2011
However, there was another water-colour painter, C.H.T. Constantini (1803-1860), who was sent to Sarah Island. He was a Paris-born surgeon who was twice transported to Australia. An information board on Sarah Island dedicated to him describes him as “ ‘disposed to be very troublesome’, with regular insubordinate conduct resulting in occasional floggings and stints in solitary confinement.” It was his painting of Sarah Island (see below) that is used as part of the island’s information boards to explain what the ruins we were looking at represented when the island was a functioning convict settlement.
The first Info board we came across after joining our guide was the one below. It is a lot clearer than the copy of the original above and basically includes half the island as it appears in Constantini’s picture. The red vertical lines suggest the area that can be seen from where the guide was talking (note red asterisk).
The stone foundations in the photo to the right is a good example of what is left to see after around 190 years have passed. Below are the remains of the Solitary Confinement Gaol. In grave-sized, windowless cells convicts endured silence and darkness for up to 14 days. Nearby was the bakehouse and the remnants of a large wood-fired over on the right below.
Administration Buildings on Sarah Island
Conditions on Sarah Island, both in the living conditions and the daily workload of convicts, were degrading. Punishments were severe and consisted of barbaric practices such as 50 lashes, months in irons and if you were particularly unlucky, you could be left on Grummet Island in even worse conditions than existed on Sarah Island. Grummet Island is shown on the left below and on the right is a drawing made by another artist, Thomas Lempriere; he was not a convict but an immigrant who came to Tasmania after his ‘merchant banking’ business failed back home in England. It shows one of the main duties of convicts; cutting down Huon Pine, forming them into rafts and towing them in rowboats back to the ship building area on Sarah Island.
Although escape from Sarah Island was deemed to be impossible, it certainly did happen but rarely successfully. The statistics show that of the 112 men who escaped, 62 perished in the impenetrable bush surrounding Macquarie Harbour and 9 were eaten by their companions. The most infamous of the cannibalistic guys was an Irishman, Alexander Pearce, who escaped from Sarah Island twice.
However the most famous escape from Sarah Island was by a group of 10 convict shipwrights who stole the last ship built on Sarah Island, just before it was about to sail for Port Arthur in 1834. They managed to sail all the way to Chile in South America. Eventually some of these convicts were recaptured and brought back to Hobart to be put on trial. They escaped conviction by proving that the ship had never been officially registered and so did not officially exist so it could not be officially stolen! This story is the plot of Australia’s longest running play (The Ship that Never Was) that we were lucky enough to catch after we returned to Strahan at the end of our long voyage around Macquarie Harbour. It was full of audience participation and was a great way to finish our day in Strahan.