Macquarie Harbour Penal Station

Thomas Bock, 'The Settlement at Macquarie Harbour, 1830 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, situated on the west coast of Van Diemen's Land, operated between 1822 and 1833. It was one of a number of sites of secondary punishment established following the publication of the influential Bigge Report. In total just over 1150 prisoners served time at Macquarie Harbour, of whom fewer than 30 were women. The main settlement was located on Sarah Island, but there were many outlying stations and the penal station as a whole covered a vast area.

Convicts were sent to Macquarie Harbour for a wide range of reasons. About half had been sentenced to secondary transportation for theft, robbery, fraud or receiving, committed while serving their original sentences in Tasmania. Nearly thirty percent were absconders, apprehended as far away as Bombay, Mauritius and Britain. Others were sent directly from newly arrived transport ships or from the hulks in Bermuda for engaging in mutinous conduct.

The enigma of Macquarie Harbour penal station is that, despite its fearful reputation as a site of punishment, it also functioned as a highly productive colonial shipyard. Flogging rates were indeed high compared to other locations, although they tailed off in later years. The aim appears to have been to expose newly arrived prisoners to a stint of probationary labour in a timber-hauling gang. Those who conducted themselves satisfactorily were promoted to service positions working as signalmen, boat crew, sawyers and servants or in the lumber and shipyards. The purpose appears to have been to refashion convicts in two ways, firstly as compliant beings, and secondly as usefully skilled. Throughout its life the settlement was plagued by supply problems. It was closed down in late 1833 and many of the remaining convicts were relocated to Port Arthur.

Further reading: H Maxwell-Stewart, '“Penal Labour” and Sarah Island ', in I Duffield & J Bradley (eds), Representing convicts, London, 1997.

Hamish Maxwell-Stewart