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Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, is a quiet, sparsely populated place, known today — if it’s known for anything at all — more for the Tasmanian devil than for the main reason it was developed: as a dumping ground for the pickpockets and horse thieves of England. That shameful past — when convicts were shipped halfway around the world to spend years toiling on chain gangs — has presented Tasmania’s tourism industry with something of a paradox. Some of the island’s most beautiful places were built through the toil of those who were shackled to this rugged land. Today, tourists are drawn by the island’s ancient pine forests and rocky gorges, but also by its convict history. The nastiest things in Tasmania now are those Tasmanian devils, scavenging brown marsupials said to have the strongest bite of any living mammal. Feeding time at the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, conveniently located along the Port Arthur Highway, is enough to turn slightly squeamish observers into vegetarians. As the young devils play “capture the head” with their dinner carcass, they let out unearthly howls. The historic sites, on the other hand, are downright serene. With its rolling green lawns, Port Arthur — which touts itself as “Australia’s premier convict site” — looks like a park dotted with picturesque ruins. The setting sun illuminates the chiseled sandstone of the convict-built Richmond Bridge. And Brady’s Lookout, where escaped prisoners could spy on potential victims below, presents a panoramic vista of the Tamar Valley. There is a certain commercial bounce here. In its heyday, the Port Arthur penitentiary, which opened in 1833 and operated for some 50 years, held hundreds of convicts. Today, Port Arthur offers “historic ghost tours” for those interested in channeling the lives of the former inhabitants, convicts and jailers alike; a gourmet restaurant cheerily dubbed Felons; and something called the “Lottery of Life” in the interpretive gallery. Visitors can take a card from a deck of 52 of Port Arthur’s most famous convicts and then follow that person’s progress through his time in Tasmania. A walking tour in nearby Hobart, the capital, traces the story of Louisa Reagan, an Irish convict who was shipped to Hobart’s “female factory” in 1841 for stealing a loaf of bread. At the same time, Tasmania seems aware that prettifying its convict past can go too far. For instance, the employees at the Port Arthur historic site do not wear convicts’ clothing or guards’ uniforms. The informational booklet explains: “Dressing staff up in convict and other costumes could turn the experiences of those who were imprisoned here into light entertainment, which we do not think is appropriate.” These seemingly contradictory messages — respect the past but buy the T-shirt — are evident all over Tasmania. HARSH NEW WORLD Tasmania, even more than the rest of Australia, was developed as a repository for convicts from England. A criminal sentenced to “transportation” often faced two harsh facts: He was likely to end up in Tasmania, and he was unlikely to have the means to return to England in his lifetime. (In fact, many present-day inhabitants trace their heritage to those felons who never left.) In Tasmania, Port Arthur became one of the biggest dumping grounds for the worst convicts. Some of the prisoners were starving urchins who had desperately needed that loaf of bread. But many were repeat offenders, recalcitrant connivers who made a trade out of fleecing their wealthier countrymen. According to Robert Hughes, author of The Fatal Shore, the definitive book on early Australian history, some thieves had actually developed specializations. For example, one group concentrated on taking bacon from cheese shops, and another stole the panes out of shop windows. But whether they had an extensive or a limited criminal r�sum�, once they got to this fatal shore, convicts faced a hell very different from any hell they had known before. While transportation was actually intended to be a more humane form of punishment than the average English prison, it didn’t always work out that way. Tasmania was geographically perfect for imprisonment: Its cold winds, rough landscape, and icy waters made escape very difficult. And Port Arthur was a step further removed: it’s situated at the tip of the Tasman Peninsula, in one of the remotest locations of a faraway place. When convicts did try to make a break from the settlement, they were met by a row of angry dogs strung in a chain across Eaglehawk Neck, the narrowest part of the peninsula. At Port Arthur, convicts lived in unheated cells, often subsisting on bread and water. Scurvy was a common problem. The more cooperative prisoners were sent out to work on farms and road crews. Using the local sandstone, convict hands fashioned much of the infrastructure of the state: solid Georgian homes, bridges, churches, and jails. BRIDGE TO THE PAST The Richmond bridge, an hour-plus north of Port Arthur, is a shining example of convict handiwork. Built in 1823, it’s touted as the oldest working bridge in the country. It’s also said to be haunted by the ghost of an overseer who was so brutal to the convicts who worked under him that one day he was mysteriously thrown to his death off the bridge. Today, though, the bridge sits among vineyards and rolling farmland, in a spot that looks more like England’s green and pleasant land than most of Tasmania. Local brides often have their photos taken here. The town of Richmond, a tourist spot that has retained a good number of its original Georgian buildings, also boasts a jail that housed convicts from 1825 to 1840, mostly those awaiting trial or working on road gangs nearby. The jail once housed a notorious criminal named Ikey Solomon, said to be the model for Charles Dickens’ character Fagin in Oliver Twist. Solomon was caught stealing in London and was sentenced to transportation to Australia. But before he could be shipped out, he seems to have escaped. He was arrested again and escaped again. The only glitch for Solomon was that his wife, Ann, had also been arrested in London (for receiving stolen goods), and she was sent to Tasmania along with the couple’s six children. So even though he had eluded transportation himself, Solomon made his way to Tasmania. Eventually he was arrested in Tasmania and sent back to England for a trial at the Old Bailey, on which Dickens reportedly modeled Fagin’s trial. Once convicted, Solomon was returned to Tasmania, again, to spend a year at the Richmond jail. Today, the jail is almost as peaceful a spot as the Richmond bridge. Tucked away in a quiet corner of town, the jail, which is open to visitors, gives very little sense of the convicts who languished there for years. Those brave enough can shut themselves briefly inside a dark cell once used for solitary confinement. Suddenly, the bright daylight is gone, and it’s impossible to see or hear anything. But outside the green courtyard is dotted with flowering shrubs. A VIEW TO A THEFT Tasmania’s northern regions offer another spot with a sunny view and a shady history. Not far from Launceston, Tasmania’s second city, is Brady’s Lookout, a rocky ledge above the sweeping Tamar Valley. Today, there are picnic tables and even restrooms. But in the early 19th century, Matthew Brady and his gang of “bushrangers” — prison escapees and other outlaws who roamed the countryside preying on the innocent — supposedly used the lookout to spy on the traffic below. Brady could pick out his victims without their ever being aware they were being watched. According to Robert Hughes, Brady was one of Australia’s first folk heroes, known for robbing only rich farmers — to sell to the poorer ones (OK, so he wasn’t a total philanthropist) — and for his courtesy toward women. Even though the reward for information leading to his capture was great, it took years for Brady to be brought to justice. When he was finally caught, the story is that the women of Hobart sent flowers and cakes to his jail cell. No matter: Brady was hung on May 4, 1826. A crowd made up mostly of women supposedly cried into their handkerchiefs.And to this day, Tasmania retains a hint of that rogue history. While there are no longer bushrangers roaming the countryside or convicts shipped from the motherland, the state’s colorful past is still easy enough to find, tucked just behind its tranquil verdancy.
Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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