Children and Empire

Children and Empire

A Report from Port Arthur, Lutruwita (Tasmania)

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this view of Port Arthur in Lutruwita (the aboriginal name for Tasmania, Australia) hardly evokes its violent history of stolen land and children held in solitary confinement.

Landscape view with ruins of a building

A view of Port Arthur (photo by author)

Port Arthur perfectly encapsulates the paradox of modern Australia as a place of stunning beauty with a deeply problematic origin story.

The former penal settlement is one of the most significant convict sites worldwide, but the surrounding landscape of gently rolling hills and picturesque coastline surely adds to the appeal for visitors from near and far who flock here annually. On a recent trip to Australia, I was lucky enough to be one of those visitors. For this month's contribution to the BCDSS Blog, I'd like to share my reflections on the place and its significance to my research on the global history of childhood and asymmetrical dependency.

As part of a two-year DAAD-UA project Child Slaveries in the Early Modern World: Gender, Trauma, and Trafficking in Transcultural Perspective (1500-1800), I was fortunate to return to Australia this year. I am still here as I write this blog post.

This second visit has been more open-ended, and aside from reading a paper at Monash University's Medieval and Renaissance Studies Seminar Series, I have spent most of my time working on my dissertation at the state Victoria Library in Naarm (Melbourne). With libraries closed for the long Easter weekend, I decided to venture to the island state of Tasmania (aboriginal name Lutruwita) to see some of the incredibly rich convict history.

Sitting on the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula, Port Arthur was established in 1830 as a "secondary prison" for convicted British criminals; that is, it was the place where the colonial government sent its hardened criminals and convicts, the repeat offenders.

For readers who may not know, Australia was initially colonized by the British as a means of expelling hundreds of thousands of convicts from the British Isles. The colonization period began in 1788 and continued well into the nineteenth century. Convicts who failed to adjust by committing crimes while serving a sentence on the mainland were sent to Port Arthur, which soon developed the strictest security system in the British Empire and became a key site of carceral innovation.

Port Arthur was effective because escape was impossible. While Port Arthur was the hub of activity, this penal colony consisted of the entire Tasman Peninsula, which was heavily guarded by a "dog line" at the isthmus of Eaglehawk Neck. The dog line consisted of dogs chained to posts to keep watch for convicts and were even placed on platforms in the water to prevent escape by sea.

Today, the open-air museum is staffed by enthusiastic experts, many of whom descend from the residents who inhabited the area after the penal colony was shut down in the 1870s. In a way that is similar to the Fort of Louisbourg, New Brunswick, and discussed by fellow BCDSS PhD Researcher Julia Schmidt in a recent contribution to this blog, Port Arthur is a major part of the local community and narrates visitors through parallel stories of history and historical preservation. A more recent tragic chapter of the place is the infamous 1996 massacre, which led to a complete transformation of the nation's gun policy. A fountain commemorating the 35 victims of this massacre is one of many layers of heritage found at Port Arthur.

A Memorial Garden Reflection Pool, where visitors are invited to reflect on the tragic mass shooting that took place at Port Arthur in 1996 (photo by author)

I found the exhibits not only up-to-date with the current thinking about the complexity of convict history but also challenging many widely held assumptions about criminals today. Before venturing into the open-air museum, visitors are directed to a gallery where they are given background information about Port Arthur and the global history of convicts.

A major theme carried forward in this orientation is a challenge to visitors to ditch over-simplified tropes that convicts were being sent to Port Arthur for petty crimes (stealing a loaf of bread, for example). Instead, the exhibits challenge visitors to understand them as complex human beings with a range of motivations and experiences.

A graphic puts the history of place into a global perspective (photo by author)

The broader history of Port Arthur is far too complex to address in a short blog post, so I'd like to turn to just a few key features of the site that struck me on my visit.

When I initially planned my visit to Port Arthur, I did not expect to find a strong link between the site and my research on the history of childhood and asymmetrical dependency. Nevertheless, a major component of the penal settlement at Port Arthur was Point Puer Boys Prison. Point Puer was across the bay.

Port Arthur operated as the first juvenile reformatory in the British Empire. While most boys sent to Point Peur were aged 14-17 years, many as young as nine years old were sent to Point Puer.

It was believed that separating young children from convicted adults would protect them from criminal influence. Young girls were also transported to Tasmania but were incarcerated at a women's factory in Hobart, where they also carried out essential forms of labor like producing textiles and other essential commodities.

A view of Point Puer Boys Prison from Port Arthur (photo by author)

Many of the children sent to Point Puer were orphaned boys from the growing slums of London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Historians know a great deal about the conditions of life at Point Puer from an 1843 report by Benjamin Horne to then-governor Sir John Franklin. In one passage, Horne described how,

"In the sleeping apartments, lights are kept burning during the night, and they [the boys] are constantly watched by Overseers, but the efficiency of this system must depend wholly upon the moral character and vigilance of these Officers. Sometimes, the Overseer relaxes his vigilance and falls asleep, and if he is not a favorite with the boys, they put out the lights and invert and empty a night tub over his head and shoulders. This trick, which is called ‘Crowning the Overseer,’ occurred once during my visit."

Tricks could easily turn violent; two months after Horne submitted this report, an overseer was murdered by two boys.

The reason I came to Australia in the first place was to collaborate with fellow early career researchers for a project focused on the history of child slavery in the early modern world.

My visit to Tasmania was intended to be an excursion, but discovering Point Puer fostered connections in my thinking about the history of childhood from a global perspective, which I had not previously imagined.

Near the conclusion of my research trip to Barbados in 2023, I began to read through records created after the period of slavery ended. One of the initiatives taken by Barbados elites and described in the colonial assembly minutes from the late 1830s was to organize a working plantation school so that newly emancipated children would receive an education tailored specifically to the needs of the colony. Reading outside my main base of materials was fruitful, if not deeply troubling.

Only by looking at records created after emancipation did I begin to realize how ideas about the sociability of children had been in the British Caribbean during the period of slavery. Zooming out in space as well as time during my visit to Point Peur, I'm realizing there is a need to think even more broadly about children, empire, and colonialism. Point Peur was established from the year slavery was abolished in the British Empire, and I refuse to think that is a mere coincidence.

Using the lens of asymmetrical dependency as an alternative to the binary of slavery and freedom would be extremely helpful in thinking about how children were broadly important to imperial projects.

In the meantime, I will get back to writing my dissertation!

A view of Port Arthur from the Boys' Prison at Point Puer (photo by author)