Before Port Arthur, there was Sarah Island, a small, remote island in the southwest corner of Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's west coast. Brick ruins are all that remain of this brutal penal colony that operated from 1822 to 1833. At the time it was the largest shipbuilding yard in Australia, producing over 100 vessels during the convict settlement period and remnants can be seen of slipways as well as a tannery, bakehouse, and other buildings.
Between 500 and 1200 people lived on Sarah Island and the punishment was so severe, there were 180 attempts made to escape. By the end of the 19th century, Sarah Island became a popular spot for tourists to walk among the ruins and enjoy the island’s beauty. It became a tourist reserve in 1926, a historic site 50 years later and is today part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and Macquarie Harbour Historic Site.
See the icons of the Apple Isle on this in-depth tour of Tasmania. Fly into Hobart for 2-nights and explore the Port Arthur Historic Site. Enjoy an epic Gordon River Cruise travelling to Strahan and Queenstown. Enjoy a train journey on the West Coast Wilderness Railway line before arriving into Tullah. Take in all the sights of Wine Glass Bay with an aerial view whilst exploring the Freycinet Peninsula before heading back to Hobart.
Sarah Island was an inhospitable place, especially when the infamous ‘roaring forties’ winds whipped up. It was difficult to escape from, and for those who did, it was hundreds of kilometres through mountains and rainforests to reach the nearest settlement. It’s no wonder some of the worst felons were transported to Sarah Island. It was also where repeat offenders were sent as punishment. Surprisingly, some women and children lived in this challenging environment.
There was also an extremely productive side to Sarah Island during its brief convict era. Due to the prevalence of durable Huon Pines, the island established a successful boatbuilding industry with draughtsmen, shipwrights and carpenters joining the convict community who also worked as boat crew and signalmen. A constant lack of food, along with economic and ‘moral’ problems and the opening of the Port Arthur penal settlement in 1830, led to the closure of Sarah Island in 1833.
Tasmania's early European settlement and convict past holds many grim tales. One of Australia’s most famous novels For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke was set in places such as Sarah Island.
Since the penal colony closed, Sarah Island has taken on many roles. A convict probation station, a base for timber cutters’ camps, and in more recent times, a pleasant place to take in some of the island’s fascinating history.
There are certainly plenty of jaw-dropping stories told on a Sarah Island Tour. Visitors are guided through the ruins by storytellers who involve them in tales of floggings, cannibalism, bushrangers, and tobacco smuggling.
Convicts arrived on Sarah Island by boat through a narrow, shallow, and dangerous channel appropriately named Hells Gates. Today, visitors arrive in sleek comfort on one of the World Heritage Cruises operating out of the quaint township of Strahan.
Sarah Island is named after Sarah Birch. When James Kelly sailed through Hells Gates as the first European to visit Macquarie Harbour in around 1815, he named the island after Sarah Birch who was the wife of the merchant who paid for the voyage.
In January 1822, Tasmania's first penal settlement was established on remote Sarah Island. It later became renowned as one of the harshest convict prisons ever built. It was intended to strike fear into the convicts and the severe punishment handed out to act as a deterrent for further criminal activities.
Daily guided tours of Sarah Island are included in Gordon River Cruises, which operates out of the town of Strahan.
Apart from the guided tours, visitors can use a map to navigate among the many ruins or just enjoy the peace of tranquility while reflecting on the island’s tragic past.
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