As a former convict settlement made less grave by its being converted to a heritage area and open air museum—a site that has become Tasmania’s top tourist attraction—the institutional building designed after Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon was once prison to European convicts deported to Australia in the 1830s where many cases of harsh and brutal corporal and psychological punishments took place. Though a destination for Europeans who had committed petty crimes, such conditions made several of its prisoners go to the extent of committing murder just so that they could be punished by the death sentence. Other means of escape included the bizarre attempt of George “Billy” Hunt who disguised himself as a kangaroo only to surrender and reveal himself when the guards, hungry and starving, started shooting at him, falling for his trick too much.
The passage of time after its close could distance the Tasmanians from its dark past only so much. No amount of man-initiated deconstructions and nature-instigated destructions could drown out the association and connotation of the convicts’ crime and punishment with Port Arthur. On April 28, 1996, years after the closing of Port Arthur, this historic heritage site of violence was the location of a massacre, in which Martin Bryant shot and killed thirty-five people and injured twenty-three others. Apparently intellectually disabled, he had motives that had their roots in the Dunblane massacre that occurred in Scotland a few weeks prior to the incident and which the media directed too much of its attention to, resulting in Bryant’s copycat effect of killing all those people in Port Arthur in order to gain reputation. Observed to be impressed by the number of people he had killed when he found out, Bryant was then denied access to any news reports of his crime and its reception. The Governor then brought in photographers who had taken his pictures for the media and ordered them to destroy it in front of Bryant as a means of reversing the pleasure he anticipated in being publicized.
A less insane motive to explore, however, is the revenge he could have planned on David and Sally Martin—victims of the Port Arthur Massacre—whom he blamed for his father’s depression and suicide, thinking they had bought the property called “Seascape” for the purpose of hurting the Bryants only upon finding out that his father wanted to purchase it.
Bryant was captured by the Special Operations Group of the Tasmania Police and received a life sentence in the psychiatric wing of the Risdon Prison in Hobart. Because of this event, the use of firearms was reviewed, resulting in a new gun ownership law adopted nationwide, with Tasmania’s law being the strictest in Australia in banning semi-automatic shotguns and rifles.
The recurrence of a crime in a place that was built to punish crimes is far too ironic and coincidental. For a place that tries to put its convict past behind it, Port Arthur sure has its ironies in having its history haunt it and repeat itself to a certain extent. It’s as if it wanted to be remembered as a place of crimes and punishments, and no matter how much the Tasmanians want to detach such a dark image from Port Arthur’s connotation, it will always be known for a past full of violence. Either way, it is coupled with the resilience of its people in the present times, having always rebounded from such events, and continuing to go against what it has no control over, refusing to allow its past to determine its present.