Isle of the Dead is a tiny island, relatively unknown compared to its larger neighbour, Port Arthur. As an important Australian Convict Site and a World Heritage site, Tasmania’s Port Arthur is a well known tourist attraction. What many tourists don’t realise is that within the bay – and clearly visible from the prison grounds – is a small island that is the final resting place of over 1600 convicts. The island is also the home to 180 members of the military staff and their families, whose graves are marked – sometimes with quite elaborate headstones. Burials stopped here in 1877, the same year Port Arthur was abandoned as a prison.
The only access to the Isle of the Dead is via an organised tour from the Port Arthur Historic Site. Normally I’m not a fan of organised tours, but since the island tour handily supplies the required boat, I made an exception in this case.
To be fair, our guide was excellent and we learnt a lot about the history of the convict colony and the Isle of the Dead. Without him we might have missed simple but important points – like the fact that convicts’ graves were always positioned at the bottom of the hill, while staff graves were on higher ground. Such was the order of society that had to be followed.
Another story the guide recited involved a trusted prisoner who was offered the chance to live on the island if he would tend to the graves – a job he readily accepted. Although the island still acted as a prison, the convict made a simple life for himself there and even began to grow vegetables. However, the story goes that none of the convicts in Port Arthur would eat his produce, knowing what the soil it was grown in contained!
There were also stories of individual headstones – such as that of William Mansfield. Facing towards the water, the headstone itself is rare as prisoners were not usually afforded a marked grave. His headstone marks his death as an accident, though research suggests that some convicts – perhaps those transported for life – would deliberately be careless in their (dangerous) work, so as to end their suffering.
Well maintained, with wonky rows of gravestones that have withstood the ravages of the decades, the Isle of the Dead is tranquil and timeless place. No doubt much quieter and more peaceful than the lives of those who were buried here.