Sarah Island was the first penal colony in Van Diemenís Land, and established in 1822 to punish transported convicts who had further misbehaved. It lasted until 1833, when the difficulty of supply forced its abandonment. It saw 15 acres of misery - the convicts worked in the surrounding forest, cutting trees for boat-building and treatment was harsh and escape was nearly impossible. In 1830 the larger, more accessible Port Arthur facility opened. For more than 40 years the settlement was deserted until the harbour later saw activity.
Our guide brought the past alive with her sprirted and theatrical account of the about 1200 men and women who were sentenced or who worked there and their living conditions. Convicts 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, some of whom were ex-convicts.
The convicts endured hard labour to produce a harvest of Huon used mainly for shipbuilding for at the time, Sarah Island was the largest shipbuilding yard in Australia. However it was more than just a prison sited on a wind swept outcrop of rock. It was also an industrial village: had 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.
We looked at all that is left - a few ruins of the structures built by the first convicts remnants of narrow cells, heard tales of murder and mutiny and left with the haunting feel of a place abandoned and of abandoned lives -for a prisoner's treatment was harsh and those who tried to escape were to die attempting to cross the sea, or were murdered by their fellow escapees. Our guide skillfully re-constructed a picture of the misery and of absence of hope.