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In the Penal Colony

John Frow

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To facilitate downloading,
this paper has been divided
into parts I & II
V & VI


Let me make a very particular criticism of the historicist vision as it is carried both by a certain form of archaeological restoration and by the three-dimensional reconstructions of the Visitors' Centre. It is that it conceives of the past as singular, cut off at the moment when the penal functions of the settlement ended, and thus discontinuous with the living growth of the township and with that present in which, among other things, a massacre took place. This process of continuing growth was one in which, for example, the Lunatic Asylum functioned as a civic centre comprising a dance hall, a gymnasium, a concert hall and a church, before being converted into a Town Hall in 1895-6, then into Council offices in the 1930s and finally a museum in 1990. Margaret Scott writes that

some of those who went to school in the restored Asylum and went shopping at Gathercole's General Store and Bakery are still very much alive. They remember playing in the ruins where some of their forebears had been held prisoner, reciting the pledge of loyalty on Empire Day and, when dances were held in the Asylum building, sliding up and down the floor between dances in a mixture of sawdust and candle grease.46

A different way of thinking about the complexly layered temporality of the site is to note that even at its height in the 1840s and 1850s it was made up of buildings of diverse and changing ages and functions; the granary was transformed into a Penitentiary; the wooden prisoners' barracks, which later became a temporary asylum for the insane and then a store, coexisted with the guard tower and the Commandant's house but, unlike them, did not survive the fires of the 1890s. And the rigid, totalitarian world of the Model Prison coexisted with the economically and socially diverse worlds of the settlement in which people worked as boat-builders, schoolteachers, loggers in a chain gang, market gardeners, book-keepers, lunatics, non-commissioned officers, and trusties.

To singularize the past and to isolate it in its pastness is to reduce this complexity to a single story, to sever a monumental time of national origins from the generational times which continuously modify it. This means in part the continuing institutionalized forgetting of that system of penal exile and civil death which has been rendered so bland, so quaint, so much a period costume drama in the national imaginary. It means forgetting the line that runs from the Model Prison to the coldly violent maximum-security institutions of today.47 It means failing to understand how the violence of the past is both repeated in and is radically discontinuous with Martin Bryant's shooting spree in April 1996, which cannot be told as part of the 'same' story. 'Every attempt is made', writes Richard Flanagan, 'to quarantine Port Arthur in its convict past, to present it as an endpoint to the British Empire rather than as a series of beginnings for modern Australia'.48 Commemoration is mourning, and it is not achieved when remembrance and meaning are so easily given.


Before it was invaded and settled by Europeans, the Tasman Peninsula was the country of the Pydairrerme band of the Oyster Bay tribe. Rhys Jones estimates that bands numbered from 30 to 80 people. In Tasmania as a whole, he writes, under the onslaught of European invasion and the effects of pulmonary diseases, 'the aboriginal population collapsed until by 1830 there were only about 300 of them still living'.49 In the few years between the 'war of extermination'50 which culminated in 1830 with a line of over two thousand armed men seeking to drive the Aboriginal population of Tasmania into the 'natural prison' of the Tasman Peninsula, and George Robinson's philanthropic rescue which led to the effective extermination of the native population,51 they vanish from sight. The comment of a visiting British officer summarizes their fate. Tasman's Peninsula, he writes, 'remained unnoticed for many years, and it was at last selected as a good place to confine the aborigines, who were doing much mischief'. The 'grand Battue' having failed, 'other plans were adopted, and they were all at last got together in Flinders Island, where they gradually became extinct.'52

Return to parts I & II, III, IV, or V & VI of this essay.

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.


44 Young, Making Crime Pay,p. 129.

45 Cited in Davidson, 'Port Arthur: A Tourist History', p. 661.

46 Tony Bennett, 'History on the Rocks', in Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader,ed. John Frow and Meaghan Morris (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1993), p. 222.

47 Jim Allen, 'Port Arthur Site Museum, Australia: Its Preservation and Historical Perspectives', Museum 28:2 (1976), p. 105.

48 Scott, Port Arthur: A Story of Strength and Courage,p. 31.

49 Daniels, 'Cults of Nature, Cults of History', p. 6.

50 Richard Flanagan, 'Crowbar History: Panel Games and Port Arthur', Australian Society 9:8 (1990), p. 38.

51 Rhys Jones, 'Appendix: Tasmanian Tribes', in Norman B. Tindale, Aboriginal Tribes of Australia: Their Terrain, Environmental Controls, Distribution, Limits, and Proper Names (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 319.

52 Marcus Clarke, 'Port Arthur Nos. 1, 2, and 3' [1873], Marcus Clarke: UQP Australian Authors,ed. Michael Wilding (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976), p. 512.

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