You might think you have a good understanding of the colonial history of Australia from your school days, but according to historian Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart from the University of Tasmania, it’s time to take a fresh look at our convict past.

Over the past decade or so, archaeologists and historians have been revitalising key convict sites across the country, and it’s prompted a major rethink of how Australians of all ages can connect with the nation’s European history.

Here are our top picks.

1. UNESCO World Heritage listing breathes new life into key convict sites

In 2010, 11 Australian historic sites, including Port Arthur and the Cascade Female Factory in Tasmania, were included in the Australian Convict Sites UNESCO World Heritage listing.

The listing was supported by information provided by Professor Maxwell-Stewart and Emeritus Professor Lucy Frost, and has seen a 27 percent increase in visitor numbers to Port Arthur, resulting in a 23 percent increase in conservation spending.

The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, a former workhouse for female convicts, has experienced a 30 percent increase in visitors since 2010.

2. Port Arthur gets a makeover to showcase its eerie past

The recent enhancement of the Separate Prison at Port Arthur – a set-up intended to isolate prisoners rather than punish them physically – is well worth an explore today. Here, convicts were forced to wear hoods and spend their days under conditions of sensory deprivation.

In the 1890s, following its closure, many walls of the prison were destroyed by bushfires or looted for building materials, but with recent conservation spending, the Separate Prison has been reconstructed to give visitors a better idea of what went on there.

“The Separate Prison has now been completely enclosed and a lot of carefully thought-out rebuilding has happened,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

“You get a sense now of what that building was like when it was operating in the 1850s, and it’s really chilling.”

3. The Voyage video game takes kids on a grisly journey

In The Voyage, a video game developed by University of Tasmania researchers, Roar Film, and the Australian National Maritime Museum, students can play as the Surgeon Superintendent of a convict transport vessel, trying to keep convicts alive on the many-months-long journey from Britain to Tasmania.

The game draws on convict transportation records to give students an accurate idea of the struggle to keep convicts and crew alive on the difficult voyage.

“I suspect that many school children will do the opposite of what we tell them to do and try to kill as many convicts as possible, whereas the aim of The Voyage is to keep them alive,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

“But by killing them, they will learn as much as if they were keeping them alive – they will find out what you can do to really mess up a transport vessel.”

Play The Voyage now.

Credit: Australian National Maritime Museum

4. Win or lose in the Lottery of Life

One of the most immersive activities at Port Arthur is the Lottery of Life.

Each visitor to Port Arthur is dealt a card representing a particular type of convict. These convict types, based on records of the first 300 convicts to arrive at Port Arthur, determine the visitor’s unique journey through the historic penal station.

“It’s a rigged deck, so if you get a jack or above, you’re going to be a skilled convict and have a good time, but if you get a card that’s below that, you’re an unskilled convict, and so your risks of being ‘beaten’ are far greater,” Professor Maxwell-Stewart explains.

“We know the punishments they’d been awarded, and because of the really detailed set of records, we know exactly where they’d been positioned in the site.”

5. Women’s stories told at the Cascades Female Factory

The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart began as a failed distillery and was converted to a factory for women convicts who were assigned hard labour for up to 12 hours a day.

“The female convict transportation is really interesting. We were surprised that they were more likely to be punished and prosecuted than men, and were more likely to run away,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

Now, thanks to its World Heritage listing, visitors can learn a whole lot more about the stories of our women convicts.

“There’s amazing archaeology that’s been done there in the last 15 years, so we know a lot more about the configuration of the building and how it changed over time,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

Port Arthur in Tasmania, one of the 11 Australian Convict Sites. Credit: artin Pot/Wikimedia

6. 76,000 digital convict records and images now available online

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, governments started to create systems for keeping detailed records on populations, particularly those in prison.

“We know so much about convicts,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

“We know the colour of their eyes, we know in many cases the species of worm that infected their guts, we know what was in their bank accounts, we know when they ran away, and we know every stroke of the lash that fell across their backs.”

And now these amazing records are available to researchers and members of the public all over the world.

University of Tasmania academics have collaborated with the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office (TAHO) to get these records digitised and made available online.

“What we’ve done is allow people to search for individuals, and we’ve provided a direct click through to a digital image of all of the records relating to that individual,” says Professor Maxwell Stewart.

Conduct record for John Smith (3) police number 11,753. Credit: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office

7. Tasmanian Names Index brings the state’s history alive

Tracing your family history just got a whole lot easier. The Tasmanian Names Index provides online access to Tasmania’s convict records, and also to Tasmania’s birth, deaths, marriage, wartime, hospital, and school records.

Historians and archaeologists from the University of Tasmania have worked in partnership with TAHO to provide online access to the historical records of 890,000 Tasmanians contained in nearly 1.2 million digitised records.

The index has also been carefully linked to genealogical and archival search engines, including Find My Past, Ancestry.com, the London Metropolitan Archive, the National Archives of the UK, and the State Library of New South Wales.

“By taking the records of all the deaths, marriages, and convict conduct records, you can plot any individual within time and space,” says Professor Maxwell-Stewart.

“Our ultimate aim is to reconstitute the archival history of Tasmania going right up to the present, and we think that’s entirely possible.”

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About Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart

Professor Maxwell-Stewart's work focuses on colonial history, the health outcomes of pass populations and the history of crime. He uses large datasets to follow past populations from cradle to grave. Many of these life course histories have been intergenerationally linked enabling him to explore the impact of policy outcomes over a long period of time. His highly inter-disciplinary work uses new technologies to interpret the past. A feature of his research is his close collaborations with industry partners, particularly in the heritage sector, which has enabled him and his team to translate their findings into school, family history and other interpretative resources. His work relates to the University of Tasmania's priority theme areas: Creativity, Culture and Society, Better Health and Data, Knowledge and Decisions.

View Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart's full researcher profile