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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Port Arthur

Penitentiary at Port Arthur, Tasmania
taken 2008
GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons

Linus Miller and Joseph Stewart had not been seen since their escape on August 29, 1840. They had reached the outskirts of Hobart Town, when some constables spotted them and were soon in hot pursuit. Rather than risk being shot on sight, they surrendered to the authorities after an absence of twelve days. They asked permission to return to their group at Lovely Banks, but instead were sentenced to two years of hard labor at Port Arthur.

The landlocked bay of Port Arthur, which James called “this place of torment,” is located on the Tasman Peninsula, sixty miles from Hobart. Fortunately James was never sent there, but he was well aware of its horrors. This naturally picturesque and peaceful setting was home to one of the world’s most feared penal colonies. The town itself is situated on a point, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of land. “The escape of prisoners is prevented by chaining large savage dogs so close to each other across the neck [of land], that a man cannot pass between them without being seized and torn in pieces.”(1)  As a deterrent to disobedient or rebellious behavior, the convicts at the various road stations were warned that a more severe punishment than they were enduring at present awaited them at Port Arthur. Ironically, several Patriots endured suffering at this place named after Sir George Arthur, the man most responsible for the severe sentence dealt to them at Niagara.

Miller and Stewart suffered unbearable hardship for more than a month in the carrying gang at Port Arthur, transporting timber, some of it as long as forty feet and as wide as eighteen inches square, on their shoulders. At six  feet, Miller was the tallest man in the gang of twenty (ten men supporting each side), and when he was forced to stand upright, he bore nearly the whole weight of the log on his shoulders. Already “reduced almost to a skeleton,” and having no padding in his jacket, the sharp, jagged edges of the heavy timber scraped the skin from his shoulders. His jacket became red and stiff with congealed blood from the wounds.(2)  Miller and Stewart soon became so weakened that they were transferred to the invalid gang and worked in the government garden. Miller also worked for a time in the washhouse, laundering the prisoners’ shirts. Miller’s manual labor soon ended when he was chosen by the Reverend J. A. Manton to be the clerk of the church and the school keeper (in charge of the evening school for the prisoners.) At the end of his two-year sentence, Miller obtained a comfortable position in the home of the Commissariat Officer, General Thomas Lempriere, as tutor to his children. Later Miller was hired “at a handsome salary” as the law clerk in the Hobart Town office of Edward MacDowell, the first barrister in the Australian Colonies. Joseph Stewart obtained a good paying position at the Port Arthur signal station, tending the telegraph. Both men were eventually better off than some of the Patriot prisoners who remained on the road station, but their tickets of leave, as well as their pardons, were held up for a year as a result of absconding. Miller finally received a pardon in July 1845. It was not until September 25, 1845, that he was able to find passage home, arriving in January 1846 after six years in Van Diemen’s Land, an absence of eight years in all.(3)

While at Port Arthur, Miller and Stewart became acquainted with the Chartist prisoners mentioned by James in his account. John Frost, a radical former mayor of Newport, along with Zepheniah Williams and William Jones, led an uprising in Newport, Wales. Miller wrote, “Frost and Williams were both excellent men, and deserved a better fate.”(4) James was also well aware of the Chartist prisoners at Port Arthur, and expressed empathy for their plight:

It was to this place of torment, that Mr. Frost, late Mayor of Newport [Wales,] with Williams and Jones, his comrades concerned in the Welsh outbreak, were sent; though some of the ablest lawyers and judges in England declared their conviction and sentence to be at variance with law. They were at first treated better than the other wretched beings there, but bad is the best usage of Port Arthur, so they also put out to sea in a whale boat, were pursued, taken, and Williams put in irons - in the day time he was made fast to a long and heavy chain fastened to an iron ring in the wall, and kept at hard labor stone-breaking, and Frost and Jones found their condition changed much for the worse. The editors were friendly to these Welshmen, but they could learn little and effect nothing. I am satisfied that in England they have no correct idea of Frost's sufferings; his letters dare not tell the truth.(5)
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  1.  Snow, part II; Miller p. 347.
  2. Miller, pp. 332-36, 338.
  3. Miller, pp. 341-348, 351-355, 368; Snow, part II.
  4. Miller, p. 342.
  5. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, p. 7-8. Chartism is the campaign begun in 1838 in support of the People's Charter. At a time when the right to vote was severely limited, the Charter demanded the vote for all men.

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