“When we landed in this colony to different masters went,

For little trifling offences boys to Hobart Town gaol were sent,

Now the second sentence we received and ordered for to be,

Sent to Macquarie Harbour, that place of tyranny.”

The Cyprus Brig, a convict ballad

For 11 years in the early 19th century, the British colonial government of Van Diemen’s Land in what is now Australia operated one of the most vicious institutions in Australian history; a far-flung outpost on the edge of the world that, to the convicts who were sent there, became known as Pluto’s Land, after the ancient Greek god that ruled the underworld. This place was the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station. 

In 1822, the government of New South Wales established a new penal settlement far to the south, in Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as it is now called.

At the time, there were just two major settlements on the island, Hobart in the south and Launceston in the north, along with a string of whaling stations. 

But this new settlement was not going to be in the north or the south. It was going to be in the west, in the vast waters of Macquarie Harbour on a spit of land officially called Sarah Island. 

The new colony was partially intended to exploit the region’s huge forests of Huon Pine, a native wood that was known to be light, strong and exceedingly resistant to rot, all qualities that made it ideal for ship building, an industry that was to be key to the colony’s economic development. 

However, this economic activity was only the secondary purpose of the outpost. This was a convict station but not just any convict station. It’s primary purpose was to serve as a place to send those who committed new offences after arriving in the colonies, the troublemakers and the absconders. A prison of last resort. 

One look at the local geography gives a pretty good indication as to why it was chosen. 

For one, unlike the penal settlements at Sydney or Hobart, it was an island. However, even if a convict did manage to abscond to the main island, life only became harder from then on, because Macquarie Harbour is surrounded on all sides by some of the most unforgiving landscape on the Australian Continent.

The western and southwestern Tasmania is characterised by a series of mountain ranges. The so-called West Coast Range borders Macquarie Harbour, and it is typified by jagged peaks, cliffs, deep ravines and gorges, fast-flowing rivers, high rainfall and an ecology defined by huge swathes of temperate rainforest. The terrain is so rugged that it was not properly mapped until the 1980s and previous surveys, such as that conducted by Thomas Scott in 1824, simply depict the harbour as surrounded by blank space. True uncharted wilderness.  

However, it was not just the terrain that was daunting. The climate was often downright hostile. 

The west coast of Tasmania is entirely at the mercy of a potent combination of the frigid waters of the Antarctic Ocean and the powerful winds of the Roaring Forties. The coastline is frequently assailed by cold fronts, powerful storms and vicious winds. In fact, the cold winds were so strong and so persistent that the overseers of the penal station were forced to construct a series of elaborate windbreak defenses, including a barrier wall two feet thick and 26 feet or 8m high. 

In winter, snow blankets the upper reaches of the West Coast Range, though on occasion the snowfall has been known to reach the sea itself. 

And to make matters worse, it rains. A lot. The Tasmanian west coast is one of the wettest places in Australia. 

In fact, it rained so much that when the convicts on Sarah Island attempted to establish crops in the optimistically named Farm Cove, their efforts came to naught. The ground was simply too wet and the soil too poor.

The only food the residents of the penal station could grow themselves were some potatoes and turnips on semi-sheltered Philips Island, but this was no where near enough to feed the entire population and malnutrition was rife, as were diseases such as scurvy and dysentery. Given it was not self-sufficient, the outpost had to be regularly resupplied by sea.

Philips Island by Thomas Lempierre, 1828

Even this was no easy task. 

Though Hobart and the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station are just 170km apart as the crow flies and the sea journey between them is roughly 210 nautical miles, the average sailing time from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour was 27 days. Frequent bouts of severe bad weather meant ships had to seek shelter in a series of bays and inlets and then slowly make their way north up the coast all the while being battered by dangerous winds constantly driving them towards the jagged shoreline. 

In contrast, the return journey could take as few as four days. 

And even arriving at Macquarie Harbour was not the end of the challenges, because in order to enter the harbour ships had to traverse the passage known as Hell’s Gates. Though the convicts would later take this name as referring to the nightmarish fate that awaited all who were sent to Sarah Island, Hell’s Gates was actually named by the sailors who had to make the passage. 

A tour boat passing through Hell’s Gates

The channel is incredibly shallow, with a depth of just nine feet and could only be navigated at high-tide because at other times a rapid current surged through the gap, threatening to smash any unprepared vessels on the rocks. Vessels had to be unloaded, guided into the harbour by a dedicated pilot while their cargo was carried overland and then re-loaded before docking at Sarah Island. 

But even apart from the isolated location, the horrific weather, the nightmarish journey by sea, and the fearsome landscape, the worst part was undoubtedly the penal station itself. 

Every morning there was a roll call. Any who failed to answer their name were flogged. For breakfast they were each given a litre and a half of skilly, a thin broth made from oatmeal and water. After breakfast, they were assigned to their work crews and sent on their way.

There were several tasks to which convicts could be assigned. Some were sent to Brickmakers’ Bay, Charcoal Burners’ Bluff or Limekiln Reach.  Later, shipbuilding would become the primary industry, with the station becoming the hub of ship construction in the entire Australian colony. 

However, most convicts were sent to harvest timber. All of these assignments involved backbreaking labour, though the logging was an order of magnitude harder and more dangerous.

To make matters worse, this hard labour had to be done without food, as giving the convicts something to eat while on the mainland was seen as creating an unacceptable risk of absconding. 

Attempts to smuggle even the smallest morsel of food off Sarah Island were severely punished. 

James Robinson was sentenced to 100 lashes and six months in the chain gang for being caught with cooking fat in his possession. Jonathon Smith was sent to the chain gang and given 50 lashes for trying to smuggle a biscuit into a gang boat. 

These judgements, as with all judgements handed down in the penal station, were made by the commandant of the outpost, Lieutenant John Cuthbertson of the 48th Regiment. 

As far as the commandant was concerned, Macquarie Harbour was his kingdom. He was both master of Sarah Island and its magistrate.

Cuthbertson was a man endowed with extraordinary authority, able to control every aspect of the lives of those put under his jurisdiction.

The detailed records paint a picture of a man who was more than willing to subject his charges to vicious reprisal for the most minor offences. 

  • Committing a nuisance: 25 lashes.
  • Losing through neglect or disposing of his shirt: 50 lashes and 6 months in irons. 
  • Destroying through neglect a truss belonging to the government: 7 days bread and water. 
  • Entering the quarters of Lieutenant John Cuthbertson and stealing plums and tea: 100 lashes. 
  • Absconding into the woods: 100 lashes and 6 months in irons.

When convict James Mason chopped off two of his fingers, probably with an axe, Cuthbertson charged him with damaging himself ‘in order to deprive the government of his labour.’ 50 lashes. 

To quote historian Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, “how easily 100 hundred strokes slides off the tongue and yet how hard it is to comprehend the savagery of such a punishment.” 

The victims were stripped to the waist and bound, legs splayed, hands above their head, to a wooden stand known as a triangle. On Sarah Island, the triangles stood just above the waterline. Beside them lay a long planked gangway. Cuthbertson personally supervised each flogging, walking up and down the gangway. The strokes were timed to match his pace. When he turned on his heel at the end of the gangway, a new stroke was dealt. In this way, Cuthbertson even controlled the pace of the floggings he had ordered, walking faster or slower according to his whim. It was not uncommon for a flogging of 100 lashes to take over an hour to complete. 

Convicts flogging another convict, artist unknown

The tool used to punish the convicts was the cat, a flogger with nine strands of whipcord, each with at least seven knots in them. The version used at Sarah Island, the so-called Macquarie Cat, had small pieces of metal added to the knots. Such a weapon had the victims bleeding into their boots after just a few strokes. 100 strokes had the potential to kill a man. 

Cuthbertson drowned in December 1823 while leading an attempted to recover a vessel that had broken its mooring lines in a storm.

In the previous 12 months, he had ordered a total of 9,100 lashes, inflicted on a population of convicts not much more than 150 at any one time. 

On one occasion, the convict charged with wielding the cat dealt 1700 strokes in a single week.

There are very few descriptions of Cuthbertson from those who met him, but one of those that has survived came from a convict known simply as Davis, who described him “the most inhuman tyrant the world had ever produced since the reign of Nero.”

Unfortunately for the convicts, Cuthbertson’s successors as commandant were not much better and the cruelty would remain a feature until the station was closed in 1833, though it may be said that it did not again reach the heights of brutality achieved under Cuthbertson’s rule. Still, over the 11 years of its operation, 1152 convicts were sent to Sarah Island. A total of 1231 floggings were carried out during that time, with an average of 6,744 lashes a year. 

Between the hostile environment and the brutality of life in the outpost, for the convicts that sea journey from Hobart to Macquarie Harbour represented nothing less than a descent into hell. 

The impact of this visciousness on the convicts who endured it can be readily seen, quite apart from the horrific wounds they suffered at the hands of the flogger. 

Though Macquarie Harbour was intended as a prison of last resort and it had quickly gained a reputation throughout the colonies as housing the worst kind of people, the most degenerate, in truth this was not the case. People convicted of the worst crimes, such as murder or rape, were simply sent straight to the gallows. 

Of all the convicts sent to Sarah Island, just 3% were guilty of crimes involving violence. Some had never been convicted of anything at all. 

And yet, these same people committed some truly deranged acts of violence while they were there. 

On one occasion, the convict William Saul caught a snake. His friend William Allen asked Saul to give him the animal. When Saul refused, Allen attacked him with a knife, stabbing him in the face, throat and finally in the heart. He then disemboweled his friend and cut off his genitalia. 

On another occasion, the convict John Mayo had just disembarked on the shore to begin the days work harvesting timber when he drove his axe into the head of the man who just happened to be in front of him. He even landed a second blow before he was subdued. He later said he had no issues with the man he had killed, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On yet another occasion, one convict had his throat cut for reneging on a deal to supply the slush skimmed from the top of the meat boiler, which amounted to a few ounces of fat. Another man was murdered with an axe while he slept, the weapon buried deep in his skull. The motive for the killing is unknown. 

Given that many of the perpetrators in these cases had no prior history of violent crimes or behaviour, it is clear that the nightmarish life on Sarah Island had left its mark. 

In 1827, a group of convicts held in the chain gang on Small Island managed to saw through their irons and murdered one of the constables guarding their quarters. Since the commandant had no power to try capital offences, the convicts were dispatched to Hobart where they were sentenced to hang. This was precisely what they wanted. They preferred to die than endure their hellish existence in Macquarie Harbour any longer. The unfortunate constable was merely a means to an end. 

Similarly, the standard punishment for absconding, 100 lashes and 6 months in irons, was eventually reduced in the late 1820s to 50 lashes, because absconders often chose to starve in the wilderness rather than return to face yet another flogging. 

And, for all the then-Governor Macquarie’s belief that it was impossible to escape from Macquarie Harbour, there was certainly no shortage of convicts prepared to try. 

Many disappeared into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Others were found by search parties, starving due to lack of supplies, while still others were killed by their fellow escapees or the local Indigenous tribe. 

Most who absconded from Macquarie Harbour failed in their bid for freedom, either through death or recapture. However, there were a few who did manage to escape and their stories range from epic displays of cunning to the truly disturbing. They are deserving of dedicated videos of their own. 

The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was formally closed in 1833 after 11 years of service. Though there were certainly some in colonial society who had strong moral objections to the barbarity of the station and life for the convicts did improve marginally over the years, the primary factor was the sheer financial cost of maintaining such an isolated outpost, especially when the alternative penal station at Port Arthur, established in 1830, could already house more than double the population of Sarah Island at its peak in 1828 and at half the cost at that. 

Remains on Sarah Island

To put it simply, the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was no longer worth it. 

And so one of the most brutal chapters of Australian history came to a close. 

The closing of Sarah Island is unlikely to have been much comfort for those sent to Port Arthur instead, as soon enough that institution would acquire its own reputation for brutality and misery.

Writing two decades after it was abandoned, historian John West described the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station as a place “associated exclusively with remembrance of inexpressible depravity, degradation and woe…a place where men lost the aspect and heart of Man.”

References

  • Maxwell- Stewart, Hamish. Closing Hell’s Gates: the Death of a Convict Station, Allen & Unwin, 2008.
  • Butler, Richard. The Men that God forgot, Hutchinson, 1975.
  • Collins, Paul. Hell’s gates: the terrible journey of Alexander Pierce, Van Diemen’s Land cannibal, Hardie Grant Books, 2002.
  • Brand, Ian. Sarah Island Penal Settlements, 1822-1833 and 1846-1847, Regal, 1984.