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In the Penal Colony

John Frow

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this paper has been divided
into parts I & II
V & VI


If memory has so central and so institutionalized a place in the disciplinary systems to which we are heir, then it is surely wrong to oppose, as Nora does, the involuntary memory of lived, generational experience to the voluntary memory of national historical time. The former is always in some sense rehearsed and repeated; the latter is in some sense always beyond our control. Disciplinary memory, if I can call it that, continues to play an important role in the routine formation of moral selves, perhaps most particularly in its transformation into a memory-work understood as the therapeutic exorcism of repressed and traumatic material. This is not a matter of a historical evolution away from some lost premodern realm of spontaneous and natural memory we know that memory has always had a technical foundation. It is a matter, rather, of the modalities of remembrance which are specific to our world, and of the pasts that they construct. My question, then, is: how has the lived violence of Port Arthur's past been folded into national historical time? To what extent has this making-past happened within a moral economy where memory still functions in a disciplinary way, as a duty of self-healing, as moral catharsis? And how to pose this as an ethical task should the violence of those events be remembered? How is it possible to keep alive the intensity of their wounding while at the same time turning it to productive use?

The dream of the prison continues to be dreamed in the many aftermaths of nineteenth-century penality and of the convict transportation system. At Port Arthur the vision of total order and an all-pervasive discipline declined as the settlement did. Transportation to Van Diemen's Land was finally abolished in 1853. Although Port Arthur was retained as a penal settlement well after the other stations were closed, the proportion of its inhabitants classified as paupers, invalids and lunatics men who had known nothing but prison for most of their lives and were incapable of surviving outside it grew steadily; a Paupers' Mess was erected in 1864, and a Lunatic Asylum in 1867. The penal settlement was closed in 1877, and although it survived as a town, its buildings were vandalized by tourists and then gutted by bushfires in the 1890s.

To this aftermath of physical and civil decline, however, which was to continue for a century after the closure of the settlement, was counterposed a different kind of aftermath as Port Arthur was slowly and unevenly integrated into an imaginary of national origins. The process was complex, and involved a forgetting as much as a remembering. And this was more generally true of the afterlife in memory of the convict system: Stanner speaks of two 'cults of disremembering' in Australia,31 deep-rooted reticences about the dispossession of the indigenous peoples and about the convict beginnings of European settlement. Until well into the twentieth century, convict ancestry was 'that hated stain', a social and perhaps genetic taint which few, and perhaps especially few Tasmanians, were willing to acknowledge. This anxiety about origins was reflected in attitudes towards the physical remains of the Port Arthur settlement. An editorial in the Hobart Mercury of 1913 recommended that

the large rambling ruin of the Penitentiary, a relic of that very worst style of British architecture which gave the Old Country the most hideous factories that Lancashire and Yorkshire ever possessed, should be razed and cleared away entirely and its site used for some edifice of more aesthetic appearance, and pleasanter associations … We need memorials and reminders that are cheerful and inspiring, not depressing, humiliating, saddening … Men rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves, and need not have those ugly corpses hung round their necks or sitting at their tables.32

And when fires gutted many of the buildings in 1897, 'the Tasmanian Mail observed that many people would make no concealment of their satisfaction at the destruction of the penitentiary. Some thought the fire a manifestation of Divine vengeance; others saw it as symbolizing the final release from the spell of convictism'.33

The only way, it seems, in which Port Arthur and the convict system it represented could be appreciatively seen was through an aesthetics of ruin. Anthony Trollope, indeed, envisages the place as always already ruined: 'It seems hard to say of a new colony, not yet seventy years old', he wrote after his first visit to Australia in 1871-2, 'that it has seen the best of its days and that it is falling into decay, that its short period of importance in the world is already gone, and that for the future it must exist, - as many an old town and an old country do exist,- not exactly on the memory of the past, but on the relics which the past has left behind it'.34 Later, with a self-consciously elegiac cadence, he adds that if, as it inevitably will be, Port Arthur is abandoned, 'there can hardly, I think, be any other fate for the buildings than that they shall stand till they fall. They will fall into the dust, and men will make unfrequent excursions to visit the strange ruins'.35 His vision of what he calls 'probably the most picturesque prison establishment in the world'36 inaugurates a tradition of convict tourism for which, as another early visitor puts it, 'it is easy to forget, wandering through this beautiful garden, that 700 fellow creatures, who have lost home and liberty through crime, are in chains so near you'.37 But it is above all the ruins that capture the imagination and effect a reconciliation with a distanced past. 'The infamous penal colony of Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula is now a collection of picturesque ruins set in a spectacular landscape', writes one recent guide; 'the work of man there, wrought in the interests of British penal policy, joins harmoniously with nature in all her moods'.38 The Port Arthur church, in particular, came to have iconic status; 'its ivy-covered walls made it seem like Australia's Tintern', that is, 'like a genuine (i.e., English) ruin'.39 It is on this basis that successive regimes of site-conservation begin to come to terms with the ways in which its fabric bears witness to a past of which it is the direct indexical trace.

At the core of the aesthetics of the ruin is the sense that an edifice passes, with time and weathering, from its social function (punishment, for example) to a merging with the natural world. Gilpin wrote that 'It is time alone which meliorates the ruin; which gives it perfect beauty; and brings it, if I may so speak, to a state of nature … Rooted for ages in the soil; assimilated to it; and become, as it were, part of it; we consider [the ruin] as a part of nature, rather than of art'.40 We might at the same time suspect in this aesthetic a disavowed pleasure at the ratio between past devastation and present survival.41 But in a lieu de mémoire like Port Arthur it is surely the softened glow that the ruin gives to a convict past now half-merged into the natural world that constitutes its appeal. Hence the paradox that, to the extent that the buildings of the Port Arthur penal colony are preserved at all, they are preserved precisely as ruins.

The fate of the site after 1877 is largely a history of accident and of government incompetence. Many of the major buildings were completely destroyed by the fires of 1895 and 1897-8; the rest survived numerous schemes for the management of the site which, while often seeking to restore or maintain the Church, sought also to tear down the largest and least stable remaining structure, the Penitentiary; they were saved by bureaucratic hesitation and the failure of prosecution, rather than by any policy of preservation. Only the determined opposition of a few individuals prevailed over government indifference and widespread resentment towards the shameful past that the site represented. The Tasmanian Engineer-in-Chief, T.W. Fowler, recommended in 1913 against the demolition of the Penitentiary, arguing that the entire complex of ruined buildings was an asset in fostering tourism; and the Superintendent of Reserves at Launceston, W. McGowan, commissioned in 1944 to produce a graphic representation of the Minister's vision of a cleansed and prettified tourist park, instead successfully argued the case that

the attraction of Port Arthur lay in its 'historical nature'. Consequently, 'to alter it by endeavouring to make modern improvements would have a tendency to loss of splendour'. Tourists, he argued, could see modern gardens and parks in almost any township, but historical buildings of such a nature were very rare. McGowan therefore proposed not to 'attempt to intermingle the new with the old, but to preserve the old landmarks in such a way as to convey to those who visit them, the architectural nature of the times and its historical value'.42

It is important to be clear about what this appeal to the value of the past entails: it means that the past is entirely separate from the present, and that the traces of the past can represent it to the present. The ruin thus signifies in its very form the non-existence of the past which it simulates. This historicist vision is spelled out with great clarity in the 1975 Port Arthur Management Plan, which states that 'The site and buildings must … retain their romantic flavour…. To achieve this feeling, some structures will be maintained as ruins, stressing by their condition the fact that, whatever it was that happened there, it is gone and will not return'.43 'Whatever it was that happened there': euphemism connives in the abolition of that past which is here sealed off in its pastness. And because it is sealed off, because it is discontinuous with all other times, it exists as a kind of essence of the site. It is for this reason that the argument to historical value tends at the same time to call for the demolition of all of the accretions to the site that date from after the convict period, accretions which are seen as an inauthentic overlay on the authentic historical core.

We can see something of the tenacity of this historicist structure of thought in a critical account by Jim Allen of the federally funded archaeological restoration that began to take place in the 1970s. Restoration, in Tony Bennett's definition, is a 'fabrication of idealized pasts by stripping ancient buildings of their subsequent accretions so as to restore to them the architectural purity they were once thought to have had', or at least a purity thought to be 'essentially and spiritually theirs no matter what the historical record might say'.44 The practice that Allen describes is one in which two contradictory tendencies operate: on the one hand, buildings are brought back as close as possible to the state they were in prior to 1877; on the other, highly sophisticated stabilization techniques are used to counter their decay. Thus some of the crumbling bricks in the Penitentiary, which were never fired at a sufficiently high temperature in the settlement's primitive kilns, are refired and the walls rebuilt; and damp courses are inserted into the fabric to counter the erosion from the reclaimed land on which the foundations stand. For Allen these practices represent a failure of historical imagination: the historical reality is the decay of the site and of the system it represents; this system 'should be seen to have failed and the ruined buildings are the most poignant testimony of its failure'. The technical deficiencies of the buildings, which render them vulnerable to decay, 'underline the inadequacies of the system a lack of skills, a lack of understanding of the environment, and the imposition of an alien culture by force'. Thus, he concludes, 'to replace original building standards with modern ones of greater durability cannot be historical restoration but merely renovation the creation of a grotesque silhouette which does violence to the past and defrauds the future'.45 In writing this, however, Allen espouses precisely that criterion of fidelity to a single authentic past, an originary essence, which restoration sets as its aim and which leads it to exclude all other historicities from its purview.

Historicism is one major strand in the struggle for preservation of the site. The other is that of the repeated attempts to turn it into a theme park, with son-et-lumière shows, ghost tours, reconstructions of working life, craft production, and guides in period dress. Again, it is accident rather than good management that has prevented much, but not all, of this recurrently proposed theatricalization. In one sense these two strands are opposed, as the serious to the entertaining, the scholarly to the touristic. In another sense they are not. Each has as its goal the representation of a vanished past, and they converge in the notion of a 'heritage' which is to be preserved and enhanced for the sake of the rapidly expanding market in heritage tourism.

The approach to Port Arthur is now physically dominated by a Visitors' Centre which mediates access to and experience of the site. All visitors pass through it, and are encouraged before entering the site itself to induct themselves (bearing a historical identity randomly assigned to them with their entrance ticket) into the past as it is recreated in a series of displays on the Centre's lower floor. The displays attempt, with considerable ingenuity and on the basis of solid and detailed scholarship, to give a sense of the life lived in the settlement at its height. It follows the careers of various convicts, and it works hard to reconstruct the material ambience of the prisons and workplaces. Workshops the smithy, the carpenter's shed, the cobbler's shop, the saw-pits, the commissariat store, the overseers' room, and so on are fully recreated, as are the cells and watch-houses in which prisoners were incarcerated. Cardboard cutouts represent convicts, guards, officers, and the miscellaneous personnel of a penal colony. Maps and scale models construct in its entirety a living penal settlement of which, beyond the Centre, there are now only broken and scattered traces.

The contrast set up as one passes outside is that between the hermeneutic fullness of the simulation and the bare, scattered bones of the ruined township. The site itself then becomes a secondary appendage to this reconstruction opaque, resistant to interpretation, puzzling. One barely needs to visit it when the reconstruction is so much richer, carries so much fuller a sense of the texture of lived experience. In this it conforms, of course, to that highly mediated structure of commemoration that Nora describes as its dominant contemporary mode. Everything is meaningful here, far too meaningful….

In the Penal Colonycontinues with parts V & VI. Or you may wish to return to parts I & II or III. ...

John Frow delivered this paper as a plenary speaker in April 1999 at an interdisciplinary conference, Refiguring History: Between the Psyche and the Polis, which was hosted by the University of Newcastle (upon Tyne), UK.


30 Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 649, n. 64.

31 Mayhew and Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London,p. 104.

32footnote * Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain,p. 11.

33 Quoted in Tom Griffiths, 'Past Silences: Aborigines and Convicts in our History-Making', Australian Cultural History 6 (1987), p. 18.

34 Quoted in David Young, Making Crime Pay: The Evolution of Convict Tourism in Tasmania (Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1996), p. 82.

35 Henry Reynolds, 'That Hated Stain: The Aftermath of Transportation in Tasmania', Historical Studies 14: 53, p. 23.

36 Anthony Trollope, Australia,ed. P.D. Edwards and R.B. Joyce (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1967 [1873]), p. 487.

37 Ibid., p. 518.

38 Ibid., p. 501.

39 Captain H. Butler Stoney, A Residence in Tasmania: With a Descriptive Tour through the Island from Macquarie Harbour to Circular Head (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1856), p. 48.

40 The Heritage of Australia: The Illustrated Register of the National Estate (Melbourne, 1981), quoted in Kay Daniels, 'Cults of Nature, Cults of History', Island Magazine 16 (Spring 1983), p. 4.

41 Jim Davidson, 'Port Arthur: A Tourist History', Australian Historical Studies 26: 105 (October 1995), pp. 657, 658.

42 Samuel Gilpin, Observations on … the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland,3rd. ed. (1808) I, 74; III, 183; cited in Charles Kostelnick, 'Wordsworth, Ruins, and the Aesthetics of Decay: From Surface to Noble Picturesque', The Wordsworth Circle 19:1 (1988), p. 23. Cf. Barbara Maria Stafford, Voyage Into Substance: Art, Science, Nature, and the Illustrated Travel Account, 1760-1840 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), p. 10 and passim.

43 Cf. Laurence Goldstein, Ruins and Empire: The Evolution of a Theme in Augustan and Romantic Literature (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977).

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