Visiting Sarah Island
Visiting Sarah Island has been something I have wanted to do since reading the book Van Diemen’s Land (book 6 of my 52 books challenge) by James Boyce. The book discussed in detail the early life of the settlers on the island of Van Diemen’s Land, which is now known as present day Tasmania.
Along with New South Wales, Tasmania has a strong history in Australia’s convict past. Due to Sarah Island’s mountainous wilderness and distance from Hobart Town, it was chosen as the site of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
As a former British colonial penal settlement, it was reportedly one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australia at the time. Tasmania in the early 1800’s was an interesting place to live, especially if you were sent here as a convict.
Apart from the odd town, the West Coast of Tassie isn’t known for being highly developed. Those visiting Sarah Island usually find themselves doing a road trip from one of Tasmania’s transit hubs connected to the mainland, such as Devonport, Launceston or Hobart.
As Sarah Island is on the Gordon River, the easiest way to get there is via the river, after driving to the town of Strahan.
While Strahan is a small town, there are a few cafes to eat at, River Kayaking and plenty of accommodation options. We stayed at the Strahan Holiday Retreat, which had full cooking facilities and a cosy cabin feel.
The day after arriving we boarded the Gordon River Cruise and enjoyed views of Hell’s Gates, salmon farms, historic timber sites and Australia’s temperate rain forests. The final stop is visiting Sarah Island.
Once the catamaran docked at the former site of Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, the tour guides were waiting to give a historical circuit of the Island. There’s also the option wander around at your own pace.
It doesn’t cost any extra to take the guided tour. We chose this option as I was interested to find out more about Sarah Island and the convicts who lived here.
It turns out that Sarah Island played a significant part in Tasmania’s early history.
History of the Island
On the 20th December 1815, Captain James Kelly left Hobart Town to circle Tasmania in an open whaleboat. Nine days after leaving Hobart, Kelly found Macquarie Harbour. Thick smoke covered the entrance to the harbour which meant there were Aborigines in the area.
A few years later Lieutenant Governor Sorell later recommended that a small settlement should be established at Macquarie Harbour. The settlement should be used gather the coal and timber, and as ‘a place of banishment and security for the worst description of convicts’ in the colony.
Macquarie Harbour had the advantage of being almost impossible to escape from. With later attempts mostly ending with the convicts either drowning, dying of starvation in the bush. Or on at least two occasions turning on each other and resorting to cannibalism.
Treacherous shipping conditions, the absence of provisions and poor soil caused problems from the start. One of first two ships carrying the original party was forced to turn back to Hobart because of rough weather. The remaining ship arrived in January 1822 with Commandant Lt. Cuthbertson, his officials, a detachment of soldiers, and 66 male and eight female convicts on board.
The main site for the new settlement was Sarah Island.
On arrival, preparations were made to clear the ground and construct shelters even though all the essential tools had been on the ship now sailing back to Hobart. The women were at first, held on nearby Grummet Island. It was then decided to remove them after a few months due to ‘moral’ and disciplinary problems.
A lack of food, clothing and tools soon became a problem. It took three months until the next supply came. The difficulties were made worse by disturbances and attempted escapes.
In June 1824 Matthew Brady and 14 other prisoners took a boat used by tree chopping gangs at Kellys Basin. However, after two years as a bushranger, Brady was finally re-captured.
Alexander Pearce was also a famous for escaping twice and eating fellow escapees for food.
In 1829 the Cyprus was taken by convicts while it was on route to Macquarie Harbour. Seven of the prisoners made it as far as China, but some of the men returned to England and later recaptured. One was executed and the others returned to Macquarie Harbour.
In January 1834 the final ship built at Sarah Island was taken by the ten convicts left there to complete her. They sailed the Frederick to Chile where they held up for a while. At first, the local authorities didn’t get involved. However, a later change of Governor forced six to escape, and the remaining four were then returned to Hobart, via England for trial. At Hobart, they were then sentenced and sent to Norfolk Island.
Closure and Later Use
Continuing problems of access and security and the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830 led to the closure of Macquarie Harbour in 1833. From the 1850s to the 1880s, and again in the 1930s and 1940s, Sarah Island became the base camp for piners working in the area.
During the mining rush, looting was common on the island and bricks and other building materials were taken.
Only the ruins of the more substantial structures seen in the photos are standing today.Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island Click To Tweet
Tasmania’s Convict Past: Visiting Sarah Island images take by Tools of Travel.