EJANZH: Peter Pierce reviews David Young

Making Crime Pay. The Evolution of Convict Tourism in Tasmania by David Young; Tasmanian Historical Research Association: Hobart, 1996, pp 208, rrp $20. ISBN 0 909479 16X.

Reviewed by Peter Pierce, School of Languages, Literature and Communication, James Cook University of North Queensland.

In lexical terms, Linda Colley has argued, ‘we cannot choose our heritage, any more than we can manufacture it. Except, of course, that we do both’. ‘Heritage’ is a notion that always desires embodiment. It privileges material over human history. Licensing fancy, it may discourage analysis. As the bicentenary of European settlement in Tasmania approaches (2003 is the year to circle), the island’s ambivalence towards its convict heritage remains intense, and now forever confused with the massacre of 28 April 1996 at the most famous of all convict sites in Australia, Port Arthur, on the Tasman Peninsula.

Ending his most valuable and tartly titled study of ‘The Evolution of Convict Tourism in Tasmania’, Making Crime Pay, in 1972, David Young contends that ‘Now’ (by which, however, he signals the present) ‘market forces and the dominant paradigm are as one, and a tamed and commodified convict past, which offends no one and means nothing, is everywhere to be seen’. Or what is left of it. Young details the decay, neglect and demolition of convict buildings through the first two thirds of this century. Hobart’s ‘most significant convict site’, the gaol in Campbell Street (a block south of where I grew up) was razed as recently as 1966. Elsewhere, valiant efforts are being made to preserve, or disinter, what is left, notably at the location of the Female Factory in Ross. In that case, incongruously, by a team from the University of California at Berkeley which has been at work in the last two summers.

In the Midlands ‘historic village’ of Ross, as on the Tasman Peninsula, the desire to profit from the material traces of the past is in conflict with the impulse towards amnesia. Economic boosters of Tasmania have been struggling since the whale fishery in the Derwent petered out in the 1820s. Convict heritage is proving to be a more uncertain asset than aquaculture. As Margaret Scott illustrates in Port Arthur. A Story of Hope and Courage, many of the people of the Peninsula belong to families which for generations have made their own accommodations to its ”history’. The management authority (with a brief to be self-funding) so restricted their access to Port Arthur, was – in the residents’ view – so opaque and secretive, that they dubbed it ‘theVatican’. In the aftermath of 28 April,these people, with whose welfare Scott’s book is principally concerned, feel more than ever excluded from a living, constructive connection with their own place.

Young’s story begins in the middle of last century. His theme is ‘Living Down the Past’. Travelling through the Australian colonies, Anthony Trollope remarked wistfully that ‘I never found myself among a people so prone to condemn themselves as the Tasmanians’. And he added, presciently:

It seems hard to say of a new colony, not yet seventy years old, that it has seen the best of its days, and that it is falling into decay, that its short period of importance in the world is already gone, and that for the future it must exist not exactly on the memory of the past, but on the relics which the past has left behind it.

Trollope does not ‘exactly’ detach ‘memory from ‘relics’, but the intention to popularise and exploit the physical remains of the convict system while discouraging (famously by the destruction of convict records by Tasmanian burghers ashamed of their descent) their scholarly interrogation has been one of the most powerful responses to this past. Contradictions abound: around the same time, 1877, that an attempt was made to sanitise the annals of the colony by renaming Port Arthur Carnarvon, the prosaically styled Dead Island was romantically rechristened the Isle of the Dead. The bushfires that nearly destroyed the church at Port Arthur created a neo-Gothic ruin, ivy-covered, which – says Young – ‘took on an iconic status and played a considerable part in drawing tourists to the site’. One of them was Martin Boyd, who sighed ‘Here is Australia’s Glastonbury’.

On the manufacture and vending of Port Arthur Young is acute and informative. Despite illuminating accounts of the desecration of Macquarie Harbour by souvenir hunters and the schemes for a resort on Maria Island of the Italian emigrant Senor Diego Bernacchi, Port Arthur comprises most of his business. In the nineteenth century guides concocted the apocryphal tale of convicts eaten by sharks while trying to swim the bay at Eaglehawk Neck. Episodes which Marcus Clarke invented for His Natural Life, for instance the suicide pact of the two boy convicts, became accepted as facts. All the better for day-trippers who, in 1878, could catch the steamer Truganini (named for the ‘last’ of the Aboriginal Tasmanians) to the Peninsula.

Young contends that, more than any other nineteenth-century figure, the photographer John Watt Beattie developed Tasmania as a tourist destination. The Port Arthur Museum was located in his Hobart studios from the 1890s. When Beattie sought to relinquish it, because of ill health, in 1927, the twenty tonnes of exhibits mainly ended up in Launceston. Besides the photographs were artefacts not distinctly pleasing to civic authorities still unsure of how to sell the Tasmanian past (and uncertain if it was indefinitely disposable). How best was one to exhibit John Price’s iron punishment brand, Matthew Brady’s slingshot and the axe with which the cannibalistic Alexander Pearce decapitated his victims’.

Yet in the next decade, Young argues, under the Labor Premier Albert Ogilvie, ‘the Vandiemonian strain was admitted into public life in a way that was both ostentatious and unapologetic’. Instead of excising this aspect of Tasmanian history, Beverley Coultman-Smith, in Shadow Over Tasmania (1941), written in collaboration with an ageing former inmate, saw it as essential to the island story. Still in print, the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. If a confected, comfortable version of their origins is what beleaguered Tasmania has chiefly to sell, then it is the present which will ‘pay’ for crimes and punishments long past.

Peter Pierce

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature and Head of the School of Languages, Literature and Communication at James Cook University; he is descended from the first commandant of Port Arthur.

First placed on line 24 May 1997