"I have recently visited Strahan where my wife booked us on a boat trip to include the harbour and the Gordon. Imagine my chagrin to find that our pleasant sojorn on a boat was to be interrupted by a stopover at a small island where we were to be 'mundaned' by yet another tour guide.
What followed for about one hour developed as the absolute highlight of a three week visit to Tasmania. To those whose time, efforts and passion are so woven into their educating of others, I can say no more than a complete THANK YOU.
Richard Davey inspired, cajoled, harangued and taught. Both the message and the messangers of Sarah Island have left a more poignant memory than those other parts of Tasmania wishing to pass on similar histories.
I am left with a sense of hollowness for not taking the time to participate in 'The Ship That Never Was' - next time such an oversight will not occur - and there will be a next time."
Chris Maher, Wollongong NSW
"Sarah Island is remembered only as a place of degradation, depravity and woe." JOHN WEST 1842.
Sarah Island (or Settlement Island) is found in the far south west corner of Macquarie Harbour, on the west coast of Tasmania, within sight of the world renown Gordon River. This isolated island was a Penal Settlement between 1822 and 1833, established, before the more well-known Port Arthur, as a place of 'secondary' punishment, an attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Over time Sarah Island has gained a reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors and a living hell, largely due to the exploits of one of the island's 'colourful' characters, Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict, and a novel For the Term of His Natural Life written about 1860 by Marcus Clark. The novel, although based on actual events, is a fiction which set out to create Sarah Island as a living hell for its hero, Rufus Dawes.
Other accounts by contemporary writers create further confusion. Dr. John West (quoted above), who wrote its first real 'history', was a committed Anti-Transportationist, prepared to use his account to paint black a system which was viewed by many as little more than slavery.
Altogether about 1200 men and women were sentenced or sent to Sarah Island. Most of them had committed further offences while serving their original sentences; others came as 'remittance men', skilled tradesmen who worked at the Settlement in exchange for remission of their sentence.
They were supervised by military detachments of several regiments (up to 90 soldiers at one time), and by a variety of Civilian Officers, Supervisors and Constables, many of whom were ex-convicts. Ships' crews were regular visitors, tradesmen were co-opted and often bribed to work at the Settlement. There were women and children: some convicts working as servants; some wives of soldiers and officials; some wives and children of convicts.
The Muster in 1828 was a total of 531, including about 380 convicts, 95 military, 14 women, some civilians and 27 children.
The early work of the Settlement was timber-cutting and hauling, work that could be done largely by unskilled gangs. But shipping out the valued Huon Pine proved more of a problem than expected: one solution was to build ships at the Settlement to transport the timber. Soon Sarah Island was more than just a prison. It was also an industrial village: gardeners, timber cutters, sawmen, boatmen, tanners, bootmakers, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boat builders and shipwrights, fencers, bakers, cooks, medical orderlies, quarrymen and stonemasons, brick makers, lime-burners, coal miners, clerks, accountants, artists and draughtsmen.
There are few obvious ruins on the Island today. Most of the buildings were of timber construction which has been removed or rotted. Some deliberate damage many years ago by those who wanted the island's history forgotten and the activity of souvenir collectors in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century have depleted the brick and stone structures. We do have some detailed images of the Island painted by the artists who served time there (skilled draughtsmen sent for forgery). But the real task of re-construction is to create a picture of the people who lived and worked there.
What we are trying to do at present is to put together a detailed picture of all these people, what they did, how they related to each other, and above all how they responded to the harsh environment and the brutal treatment meted out for at least half of the period of the Settlement.
The Guided Tour offers a 'preview' of this complex picture and introduces you to some of the people of Sarah Island.
The Tour has been researched and prepared by Richard Davey with the assistance of Dr. Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. It is presented by members of The Round Earth Company.
The guided tour is included as part of the Full Day cruise on the Gordon River. These cruises are operated by World Heritage Cruises and Gordon River Cruises.
World Heritage Cruises
PO Box 93, Strahan TAS 7468 Australia
Phone: 61 3 6471 7174
Gordon River Cruises
The Esplanade, Strahan TAS 7468 Australia
Phone: 61 3 6471 4300
The story told on the Guided Tour has been elaborated by Richard Davey in The Sarah Island Conspiracies, published in 2002 by The Round Earth Company. Also published in 2003 The Travails of Jimmy Porter, a memoir written on Norfolk Island in 1842 by James Porter, mastermind of the great escape on the Frederick.
For more information about The Round Earth Company publications, click here.