Macquarie Harbour Penal Station
The discovery of Huon pine in the Gordon River led directly to the decision to establish Van Diemen’s Land’s first penal station on remote Sarah Island.
The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station was established in 1822, as a place where repeat offenders and absconding convicts could be sent as a form of ‘secondary punishment’. The island was much feared by convicts, and had a reputation as a brutal place. Punishments on the island were severe, and floggings were frequent.
The men who were incarcerated here endured harsh conditions and long days of hard labour, engaged in the heavy and dangerous work of hauling and cutting highly prized Huon pine logs.
Shipping the valuable Huon pine off the island proved difficult, and over time Sarah Island developed into a thriving shipbuilding site and industrial village.
A master shipwright and free man named David Hoy arrived on Sarah Island in 1827, drawn by the opportunity to craft boats from the fabled Huon pine. Under his supervision, the shipbuilding operation on the island entered its highest period of productivity. A total of 113 ships were built here, 80 of which were completed between 1828 and 1832.
Despite the isolation of the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, many escapes were attempted, with limited success. Most who attempted to escape were never heard from again, and were presumed to have drowned, or perished in the surrounding wilderness. A total of 156 escapes were recorded between 1822 and 1828, with more than half the escapees dying in their attempt at freedom.
A notable exception was Alexander Pearce, who escaped with seven other men in 1822 and made it all the way to the east coast before being recaptured. He was returned to Macquarie Harbour, where he confessed to cannibalising his fellow escapees, although he could not be convicted due to a lack of evidence. He soon made a second escape, with another companion. When he was again captured, the remains of Pearce’s unfortunate friend were discovered in his possession, and he was convicted of murder and executed in Hobart on 19 July 1824.
One of the most daring escapes from Sarah Island has been immortalised in the play The Ship That Never Was—Australia’s longest running play, which is performed in Strahan each evening. The last ship to be built on the island, The Frederick, was to be sailed to Port Arthur by a team of 10 convicts—who instead commandeered the ship and staged an escape—sailing across the South Pacific Ocean and making it all the way to Chile!
Over its 13 years of operation, more than 1100 prisoners were sent to Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, including 30 women. The station was closed down in 1833, following the establishment of the Port Arthur penal colony on the Tasman Peninsula. Today, Sarah Island is a World Heritage-listed historic site.
You can find out more about Sarah Island by joining the Gordon River Cruise, which includes a guided walking tour of the island, and by attending the live theatre performance The Ship That Never Was, which is staged each evening in Strahan by the Round Earth Theatre Company.
The Wild Rivers Store, within the Strahan Activities Centre, has some interesting books and publications that tell the story of Sarah Island and the convict history of Macquarie Harbour, including The Travails of Jimmy Porter published by the Round Earth Company, and The Sarah Island Conspiracies by Richard Davey.