Sarah Island not so sweet

Tasmania, Australia’s Island State, was first used by the British as a penal colony.  Tasmania wasn’t just any penal colony, it was used to house the very worst of Britain’s criminal classes.  Even the gaol at Port Arthur wasn’t tough enough for some, and those poor wretches ended up on Sarah Island, a desolate spot in remote Macquarie Harbour.

Sarah Island was established, in 1821, as a penal settlement where convicts laboured under the harshest conditions in the rainforest felling Huon pines for boat building.

Of all the sites to be chosen Macquarie Harbour would have been the most windswept and barren but it was also the most secure. Any convict trying to escape Sarah Island had not only to get across the harbour but to try and hack his way through the impenetrable rainforests of the west coast.

Over time Sarah Island has gained a reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors and a living hell, largely due to the exploits of one of the island’s ‘colourful’ characters, Alexander Pearce, the Cannibal Convict, and a novel For the Term of His Natural Life written about 1860 by Marcus Clark. The novel, although based on actual events, is a fiction which set out to create Sarah Island as a living hell for its hero, Rufus Dawes.    

As Sarah Island could not produce food, malnutrition, dysentery and scurvy was often rampant among the convict population. The penal colony had to be supplied by sea. Living conditions were particularly bad in the early years of the settlement. Conditions were so crowded, convict were unable to sleep on their back in the communal barracks. Punishment involved solitary confinement and regular floggings. At least 9 people were given 100 lashes in 1823 alone.

Ergot, a type of nasty fungi, was deliberately added in the bakehouse, so that the bread would quickly become mouldy and inedible. This prevented convicts from saving their rations for escape. In 1824 a prisoner killed another convict in order to be executed rather than face further imprisonment at Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.


Today, the convict ruins give a chilling insight into the cruelties of convict life. And to help you understand just how harsh were conditions at Sarah Island you can join a tour which is quite chilling in the way it presents the history of the cruelty and misery which occurred on the island.

A walking track links important sites and the best way to visit the site is via World Heritage Cruises, Gordon River Cruises, West Coast Yacht Charters, Strahan Marine Charters or your own vessel.

Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like a barrel of fun but don’t be fooled, as you will no doubt find the tour to be a highlight of your Tasmanian trip.

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