Van Diemen’s Land

English: Photo of gravestones on Isle of the D...
English: Photo of gravestones on Isle of the Dead in Port Arthur’s harbor in Tasmania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Rack and cat and goldy sow”

To us, The Golden Age may sound a little paranoid, with the remote settler family and their fear of the real world. That is because they remember through stories told through their parents, of the horrors of the convict settlement called Van Diemen’s Land.

Once we see a little of the horrors of life in these settlements, now famous tourist attractions, we can understand where they are coming from. Perhaps it’s hard for us to imagine the full horrors of those days. Marcus Clarke captured it harrowingly in For the Term of His Natural Life.

The “cat” mentioned is not a warm, soft, purring creature, but the cat of nine tails. This was a whip with 9 strands, all of which hit the victim’s back at the same time. Since the strands were often dipped in lead, the flogging did great damage to the sailor or convict’s back.

This was made even worse by the number of lashes that many prisoners received; often 50-100, sometimes even more lashes. The pain felt at the “rack” or triangles the prisoners were tied to, where blood and flesh flew a great distance, can only be imagined. Many did not survive their flogging. Those who did, and then the salting of the wounds, were permanently scarred.

The whips and chains were enough to have the biggest bondage devotee, screaming loud for mercy as much as anyone.

The settler family are still living in this time, still running from the convict days. In the real world, life has moved on. In the 1930s, people were more worried about what was happening in Germany, and whether there would be another war.

Abel Tasman (1603-59) was a Dutch mariner. In 1638 he sailed to Batavia (now Indonesia) as captain of his own flute, accompanied by his wife and daughter.

In 1642 he captained two ships on a voyage of exploration. On 24 November “we saw the first land we have met with in the South Seas. . .very high. . .and not known to any European nation”. To escape rough weather, Tasman’s ships sheltered in a harbour on the West Coast. They dropped anchor on 1 December 1642, then went ashore.

The sailors would not see any people, only smoke from the Palawa Aborigines’ campfires. They collected some plants to eat and planted the Dutch flag on the new island. Tasman named the place Van Diemen’s Land; in honour of the Governor of Batavia, Anthony van Diemen, who had ordered his voyage.

Tasman then sailed on; discovering New Zealand, Tonga and Fijian islands. He tried to sail to the Australian mainland, on another voyage in 1644. However, he was fated not to land in Queensland, where he was driven back by the Great Barrier Reef.

The Dutch took an interest in terra australis incognito, the unknown south land talked about for centuries. They called it New Holland, but were not interested enough to make settlements here.

Van Diemen’s Land would have more white men landing on her shore again in 1803. The Lady Nelson was captained by Lieutenant John Bowen and landed first in Risdon Cove. There were 49 people aboard, 21 of them convicts. In 1804 a more permanent settlement was made across the Derwent River, where the water supplies were better. It was soon called Hobart Town.

In 1825, Van Diemen’s Land became a colony in its own right.

These were to be the cruel days of Tasmania’s history, well remembered by the family in The Golden Age. The colonies were excessively brutal to convicts, as well as being genocidal. The Palawas who were not killed outright, often died of European diseases. The last full-blooded Tasmanian Aborigine was Truganini, who died in 1876.

As for the convicts, Tasmania became a place to send the worst of the worst. The settlement at Sydney Cove was becoming popular with free settlers. Here reformed convicts could get their ticket-of-leave, become emancipists and eventually settlers.

The ones who were hardened criminals, who re-offended in the colony, were often sent elsewhere. For some this would be Van Diemen’s Land. Others were sent to Norfolk Island or the new settlement in Queensland – from where comes the haunting ballad Moreton Bay.

There were many convict settlements in Van Diemen’s Land. Some are now listed with the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the infamous Port Arthur, the Coal Mines Historic Site and Cascades Female Factory. Another settlement was Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour; made more notorious by escapee Alexander Pearce, one of Australia’s first serial killers. The entry by sea was known as Hells Gates.

Women convicts were often assigned as servants, sometimes being separated from their children. The men usually did hard labour to build the new settlement, some of them permanently shackled in chain gangs. These included coal mining, cutting Huon pines, quarrying stone, making bricks, building roads and sailing ships.

Some convicts were hard working, others not so much. Other convicts were just unlucky to be under sadistic overseers. Common enough was the “red shirt” – convict slang for a flogging. Other punishments included solitary confinement and a diet of bread and water. Another one was being demoted to the chain gang.

Some convicts went on to live good lives in the new colony; others were recidivists. The worse re-offenders were sent to Port Arthur, which was a timber mill before it became a convict hell. Some of the psychological punishments were considered advanced for the day. The natural features made it almost impossible to escape from Port Arthur, long before the Americans set up Alcatraz. The only place on the peninsula that prisoners could cross was Eaglehawk Neck, which was guarded by troopers, man-traps and hungry dogs. Port Arthur stayed operational until 1877.

In 1853, transportation was abolished to Van Diemen’s Land, although it would remain a prison colony for some time. The name would be changed to Tasmania in 1856, as if shedding an old skin. It became an Australian state during Federation in 1901.

English: Convict-built church at Port Arthur, ...
English: Convict-built church at Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



2 thoughts on “Van Diemen’s Land

  1. Linda, I have been to Sarah Island and sailed through Hells Gates. One can see why it was called thus, as the waves and wind were treacherous. The Island itself is quite small as I remember it and it amazes me that someone can actually escape from there.
    Today, scattered throughout the waters of the harbour are various fish farms, and with the invention of the motorboat, it is quite a different feeling traveling on the waters. one can travel quite safely under power of the motor and arrive at Strahan not a bit shaken and stirred as others 100 years ago might have been. Thank you for your historical insight in this course. Your research is truly inspiring.

    1. Thanks 4 that, Dave. So encouraging, as per usual.

      It was a hard project, because I’ve never been to Tassie. It’s very interesting what you say.

      Cheers, m8!

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