For the Term of His Natural Life, by Marcus Clarke

Chapter XX.

“A Natural Penitentiary.”

“The “employment” at Port Arthur consisted chiefly of agriculture, ship-building, and tanning. Dawes, who was in the chain-gang, was put to chain-gang labour; that is to say, bringing down logs from the forest, or “lumbering” timber on the wharf. This work was not light. An ingenious calculator had discovered that the pressure of the log upon the shoulder was wont to average 125 lbs. Members of the chain-gang were dressed in yellow, and — by way of encouraging the others — had the word “Felon” stamped upon conspicuous parts of their raiment.

This was the sort of life Rufus Dawes led. In the summer-time he rose at half-past five in the morning, and worked until six in the evening, getting three-quarters of an hour for breakfast, and one hour for dinner. Once a week he had a clean shirt, and once a fortnight clean socks. If he felt sick, he was permitted to “report his case to the medical officer”. If he wanted to write a letter he could ask permission of the Commandant, and send the letter, open, through that Almighty Officer, who could stop it if he thought necessary. If he felt himself aggrieved by any order, he was “to obey it instantly, but might complain afterwards, if he thought fit, to the Commandant”. In making any complaint against an officer or constable it was strictly ordered that a prisoner “must be most respectful in his manner and language, when speaking of or to such officer or constable”. He was held responsible only for the safety of his chains, and for the rest was at the mercy of his gaoler. These gaolers — owning right of search, entry into cells at all hours, and other droits of seigneury — were responsible only to the Commandant, who was responsible only to the Governor, that is to say, to nobody but God and his own conscience. The jurisdiction of the Commandant included the whole of Tasman’s Peninsula, with the islands and waters within three miles thereof; and save the making of certain returns to head-quarters, his power was unlimited.

A word as to the position and appearance of this place of punishment. Tasman’s Peninsula is, as we have said before, in the form of an earring with a double drop. The lower drop is the larger, and is ornamented, so to speak, with bays. At its southern extremity is a deep indentation called Maingon Bay, bounded east and west by the organ-pipe rocks of Cape Raoul, and the giant form of Cape Pillar. From Maingon Bay an arm of the ocean cleaves the rocky walls in a northerly direction. On the western coast of this sea-arm was the settlement; in front of it was a little island where the dead were buried, called The Island of the Dead. Ere the in-coming convict passed the purple beauty of this convict Golgotha, his eyes were attracted by a point of grey rock covered with white buildings, and swarming with life. This was Point Puer, the place of confinement for boys from eight to twenty years of age. It was astonishing — many honest folks averred — how ungrateful were these juvenile convicts for the goods the Government had provided for them. From the extremity of Long Bay, as the extension of the sea-arm was named, a convict-made tramroad ran due north, through the nearly impenetrable thicket to Norfolk Bay. In the mouth of Norfolk Bay was Woody Island. This was used as a signal station, and an armed boat’s crew was stationed there. To the north of Woody Island lay One-tree Point — the southernmost projection of the drop of the earring; and the sea that ran between narrowed to the eastward until it struck on the sandy bar of Eaglehawk Neck. Eaglehawk Neck was the link that connected the two drops of the earring. It was a strip of sand four hundred and fifty yards across. On its eastern side the blue waters of Pirates’ Bay, that is to say, of the Southern Ocean, poured their unchecked force. The isthmus emerged from a wild and terrible coast-line, into whose bowels the ravenous sea had bored strange caverns, resonant with perpetual roar of tortured billows. At one spot in this wilderness the ocean had penetrated the wall of rock for two hundred feet, and in stormy weather the salt spray rose through a perpendicular shaft more than five hundred feet deep. This place was called the Devil’s Blow-hole. The upper drop of the earring was named Forrestier’s Peninsula, and was joined to the mainland by another isthmus called East Bay Neck. Forrestier’s Peninsula was an almost impenetrable thicket, growing to the brink of a perpendicular cliff of basalt.

Eaglehawk Neck was the door to the prison, and it was kept bolted. On the narrow strip of land was built a guard-house, where soldiers from the barrack on the mainland relieved each other night and day; and on stages, set out in the water in either side, watch-dogs were chained. The station officer was charged “to pay special attention to the feeding and care” of these useful beasts, being ordered “to report to the Commandant whenever any one of them became useless”. It may be added that the bay was not innocent of sharks. Westward from Eaglehawk Neck and Woody Island lay the dreaded Coal Mines. Sixty of the “marked men” were stationed here under a strong guard. At the Coal Mines was the northernmost of that ingenious series of semaphores which rendered escape almost impossible. The wild and mountainous character of the peninsula offered peculiar advantages to the signalmen. On the summit of the hill which overlooked the guard-towers of the settlement was a gigantic gum-tree stump, upon the top of which was placed a semaphore. This semaphore communicated with the two wings of the prison — Eaglehawk Neck and the Coal Mines — by sending a line of signals right across the peninsula. Thus, the settlement communicated with Mount Arthur, Mount Arthur with One-tree Hill, One-tree Hill with Mount Communication, and Mount Communication with the Coal Mines. On the other side, the signals would run thus — the settlement to Signal Hill, Signal Hill to Woody Island, Woody Island to Eaglehawk. Did a prisoner escape from the Coal Mines, the guard at Eaglehawk Neck could be aroused, and the whole island informed of the “bolt” in less than twenty minutes. With these advantages of nature and art, the prison was held to be the most secure in the world. Colonel Arthur reported to the Home Government that the spot which bore his name was a “natural penitentiary”. The worthy disciplinarian probably took as a personal compliment the polite forethought of the Almighty in thus considerately providing for the carrying out of the celebrated “Regulations for Convict Discipline”.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37