Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Taphophile Tragics # 12 - The Isle of the Dead


In September 2009, I spent two days walking the ruins of Port Arthur and reading every sign and listening to every audio. I was mesmerised. I am not usually one for being glued to headphones and traipsing meekly behind a tour guide, but just this once I relented, and took the ferry out to The Isle of the Dead. I have book-ended this 'In Memoriam' with two shots of 'the penitentiary', the public face of the penal settlement. This opening image is from within the penitentiary, looking across to the wharf from which the ferry departed. The final image is the scene from the ferry as we returned from our sojourn on the island.


William Mansfield, died 28th February 1858, aged 32 years.


Port Arthur is at the end of the earth. It must have felt like that in 1830, as it still feels like that today. See this rugged coastline. It winds down and down and down ... past the furthest point you can see. Past your own imagining. This is where you were sent as further punishment if you stole a loaf of bread, were sentenced to transportation, and became recalcitrant. They would teach you your place!


The Revd George Eastman, for 26 years the faithful chaplin of Tasman's Peninsula and at other institutions, died 25th April 1870, aged 51 years.

Benjamin Horne, Esq., Headmaster, School Point Puer, died 27 December 1843, aged 33 years. Sincerely regretted by all who knew him.


It is a small island, just a couple of hundred metres off the settlement, but surrounded by the Southern Ocean and its roaring gales, or the impenetrable bush of southern Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was known for many years. It was used as a burial ground, and retains that sole purpose to this day. Between 1833 and 1877 approximately one thousand souls were laid to rest here. As you can imagine, a reverential hush descends upon even garrulous tourists, the instant they step onto the island, a reverence for human endurance under the most trying of hells-on-earth.

Social distinctions were observed, and the free were interred in the north-western corner. Several memorials are still evident in this section, but most of the island is bare of headstones as it was forbidden for markers to be placed on convict graves. With one thousand sites on such a small island, no matter where you tread is sacred ground.


In memory of Ann, wife of Michael Gibbons of 21st Royal North British Fusiliers, died 20th June 1838, aged 27 years. Leaving an affectionate husband and two children to lament her loss.

Private Robert Young, 51st King's Own Light Infantry, who was accidently drowned at Port Arthur in the performance of his military duties, 9th March 1840, aged 20 years. This stone was erected by his comrades as a memorial of their respect and esteem.


And so we return, leaving this isle of sorrowing dead to their bleak eternity.

This is my contribution to the Taphophile Tragics community.

27 comments:

Luis Gomez said...

These are great Julie. BTW, I actually host One Photograph a Day through blogger that is why you get the connection to google+. My work site is self hosted.

Mama Zen said...

Amazing pictures!

Steffe said...

Great post. Lots of info and some very good photo to match.

Gemma Wiseman said...

Port Arthur was such a far flung hell hole as far as convicts were concerned! It must have seemed that Nature's beauty mocked their suffering! You would think a beautiful valley slipping to the sea, with marvellous views would be heavenly! But in close up there was the unrelenting, wind struck bush, a natural barrier between hell and Hobart. Your photos capture some of that irony and the pall of tragedy that still veils this place!

Jim said...

It's an amazing place to visit.

Carole said...

Nice blog. You might like to see my post about the Picasso exhibition in Sydney. It finishes on the 25th March. http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/picasso-exhibition-art-gallery-of-new.html

VioletSky said...

That seems to be the final indignity - to be refused a marker at your burial site - after enduring so much.

Sondra said...

What a super place to visit!! I can only image the haunting reverance one feels while there. Im sure the convicts deserved their lot, but at least mark where they lay, for in death all is forgiven--
I imagine its quite a trip over on the ferry, making the entire trip a thrilling experience!!

Joe said...

I never made it over to the Island of the Dead when I visited Port Arthur. I remember looking at it from the shore. All was silent and still. It was an eerie and cold even from where I stood.

Joan Elizabeth said...

I'm annoyed coz I wrote a longer comment and it disappeared. So I will just say this is a wonderful post ... moving and beautifully photographed.

s.c said...

It shows that most people died young in those days. Great reportage of this island and love the photo,s . Especially the one of the coastline with all it cape's

Mark said...

On many historical levels Port Arthur sends a chill through my spine. I had never heard of the Island of the Dead, great post.

PerthDailyPhoto said...

What Mark said, and also looking through old cemetery's makes you realize just how young people died in days gone by, not many, if any headstones that say died at 60 or 70 or more. When the next generation look at old headstones it'll be more like lived to 70, 80 and 90.
A friend of mine has a great aunt, who has just had her 106 th birthday and still does water aerobics and goes to tech. That'll be a mind blower when it's read in the future!

hamilton said...

hmmm, I thought I commented earlier.... it seems to have disappeared (or never got out of my head)
anyway, I was thinking that this must be the most crowded cemetery and I wondered how people were buried. maybe it was an open pit.

biebkriebels said...

A lovely island to be buried, but so many young people died at that past times.

Julie said...

Hamilton: Not an open pit. They were buried over a period of 40 years, and all in individual graves. There was a 'warden' who had a hut on the island. It is an island with more rocks than soil, so my guess is the graves were not 6 feet down, and were dug by teams of convicts. It does not appear crowded because so very few (maybe 50) have head-stones. Although there are more modern markers for some graves. I have read lists compiled by researchers of those who are buried on the Isle of the Dead.

Kathy said...

So much history in this place. Thanks for sharing your research and your photos.

The Paw Relations said...

Such an interesting post. Now that is a place I would really like to visit!

Herding Cats


http://seathreepeeo.blogspot.com

Deb said...

Fascinating insight into a place built for a very particular purpose. Wonder why they chose to bury the dead on an island in the first place?

Gene said...

Very interesting! A tiny little island to have so many burials. Laughed when I saw "Sincerely regretted by all who knew him." on the marker :-)

Ann said...

It must be an incredibly atmospheric place and its very definitely on my to do list.

The Paw Relations said...

Thank you for your comment on my post.

I had my third daughter, Jessica Eris on Friday 9th March at 18:25. She weighed a teeny tiny 6lb 15oz, my last daughter was a more robust 8lb 7 1/2oz, so she seems so small to us.

The first thing my mother asked was if she was going to be a Taphophile. I told her, of course. As soon as I am able I shall be taking her for a walk in the local cemetery. Start them young I say :)

Herding Cats

freefalling said...

Port Arthur is one of the most extraordinary places I've ever been.

Francisca said...

Isn't it wonderful and amazing how much a burial ground can tell us about days gone by. This post is another well told story, Julie, in words and photos that informs me not only of place and individuals who worked or were incarcerated here, but also social values. I'm not so sure all the "criminals" were meted justice... stealing a loaf of bread? And it's always sad to see or hear about suffering in what looks like paradise.

(I'm upset with Blogger for removing the "subscribe to comments" function. Apparently you can only do so with the embedded comments. Grrr. I changed the setting on my blog, but I recall some people then have trouble leaving comments. Grrr again.)

Julie said...

I have had trouble this very day in leaving comments on some blogs, Francisca. Blogger is a problem, but then again Wordpress has issues too.

And CDPB is laid up again over the weekend. Woe woe woe ...

CaT said...

wow, interesting! its so pretty there.
the stones look a bit like the old ones you see here in boston.
this reminds me, there are many small island around boston and i saw that one had a cemetery on it. i had our weekend planned... but then i discovered that this island is for government use only.. :(
but apparently there is a homeless helter, and a "treatment and revocation unit" as well as an old fort.
surely that still has my imagination running...!

Julie said...

Go for it, CaT. You cloggies can do anything if you set your mind to it!