Colonial Offenses

Tasmania is an island off the shore of mainland Australia. Only 550,000 hardy souls live on this land mass the size of Switzerland. Mountains, forests, and cold swift waterways render much of the terrain impassable. The perfect place for a penal colony.

Map of Tasmania
Map of Van Diemen’s Land, Coffee Palace, Maria Island. Photo credit: Karen Kao

From 1803 to 1853, that’s exactly what it was. The British Empire transported 75,000 men, women, and children to Tasmania — then known as Van Diemen’s Land. The punishment for stealing a hunk of bread was transportation, even if you were a 13 year old boy.

Perhaps it’s my natural lugubriousness that draws me to this history. Or the fact that the third volume of my Shanghai Quartet takes place in a Chinese prison camp. In any event, I feel the need to see the vestiges of this vast prison complex. 

Cascades Female Factory

For the 13,000 women transported to Tasmania, penal life begins at a Female Factory, an institution that serves a multitude of purposes.

as a prison, place of punishment, labour hiring depot, nursery, lying-in hospital for pregnant female convicts, workplace and temporary housing for female convicts until they were ‘married’ or assigned as domestic servants to free settlers or colonial officers.

Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, Pack of Thieves? 52 Female Factory Lives (2014)

The stories of female convicts are sadly monotonous. Most are transported for petty theft: a handkerchief, a pair of candlesticks, sheep. Their names are Mary, Eliza or Sarah. They’ve exchanged one class-based society for another.

Cascades Female Factory Hobart Tasmania
Artist rendition prisoner wear, Cascades Female Factory. Photo credit: Karen Kao

In a Female Factory, the first class prisoners are eligible to work outside the prison, though without pay. These convicts have behaved themselves on the journey from England and keep their noses clean.

The second class convicts must work at the Female Factory — sewing, mending, or tending the underaged children imprisoned with their mothers — to earn this privilege.

The Crime Class is only fit for hard labor. These are women whose crimes in the old country are too heinous or who violate the laws while in the colony. Colonial offenses include being insolent, refusing to work and becoming pregnant. For these crimes, the Crime Class is sentenced to washing the laundry of convicts and settlers or teasing tar from ship ropes until their fingers bleed. Grey are the stone walls, the heavy cotton gowns, the river that regularly floods the isolation cells.

These stories can only hint at the lives left behind in England or Ireland or Wales. You can read the only known letter written to a female convict at the Matron’s Cottage of Cascades Female Factory,.

May your rest be calm and your dreams sweet always thinking of him, who always thinks of you. — again farewell until I can shake hands with my darling Mary, until death do us part.

Letter from James Walsh to his wife Mary, Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, 16 July 1843


Irish women made up 20% of transportees. Some committed crimes so that they would be transported and thus delivered from the hell of the Great Famine. After transportation ended in 1868, a new wave of Irish women came to Tasmania. These young women were plucked from the workhouses to sate a demand for wives. My friend, the Tasmanian historian, calls them sex workers. 

In 1849, William Smith O’Brien is convicted of treason for attempting to aid Irish Catholics. He deserves to be hung, drawn, and quartered. Instead, Smith O’Brien is transported for life to Van Diemen’s Land. In his case, that means Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island. 

Darlington Probation Station, Tasmania
Convict reservoir, Maria Island, Tasmania. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Maria Island lies off the eastern coast of Tasmania. Today, it takes 30 minutes by ferry to reach. Imagine the journey by rowboat in the rain and wind.

Darlington Probation Station represents a new phase in the penal colony. Male convicts no longer work as slaves for free settlers but rather for the benefit of the government. Convicts work in chain gangs or labor at a probation station. They built the reservoir on Maria Island that still stands today.

Smith O’Brien tries to escape Darlington. He wants to make his way to the United States as a stowaway on an American whaler. Smith O’Brien fails. For this colonial offense, his new place of residence shall be Port Arthur.

Port Arthur

At Port Arthur, our guide tells us that she is the descendant on 3 sides of Port Arthur convicts. She calls this place a prison for the worst of the worst. To reach Port Arthur from Hobart, you have to cross an isthmus once guarded by a chain of half-starved savage dogs. 

During his 3 months at Port Arthur, Smith O’Brien leads a life of leisure. He has his own cottage. He maintains a wide correspondence to his family and friends back home in Ireland. Keeps a journal, too.

This is not the life of your average Port Arthur convict. For colonial offenses, recidivists perform the harshest of hard labor. The task at Port Arthur is to produce grain. But the soil is poor and there is no water to operate the mill. So convicts work a treadmill while wearing 8-16 kg leg irons. Even the healthy ones can only work 15 minutes on, 8 minutes off. It’s a scene straight out of Gould’s Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan’s fictional account of the life of a trickster who could be, but may not be, William Buelow Gould.

The real William Buelow Gould was born in Liverpool. He must have had some artistic training. Gould may have painted fine china for Spode. His gambling lands him in Tasmania and later at Macquarie Harbour. There, his orders are to paint the fish. 

I go to the Allport Library in Hobart to see Gould’s book of fish. Of course, the real dinkum lies safe in the library vaults. All I get to finger is a facsimile. The paintings are gorgeous, delicate, other-worldly.

The Taint

If a convict serves her full sentence and commits no colonial offenses, she can get a Free Certificate. That piece of paper allows her to go home but few ex-convicts have the money to do so. Most remain in Tasmania and try to make a fresh start.

But a convict past is hard to wash away. According to the 1847 census, more than 50% of Tasmanian residents were or had been convicts. The odds seem awfully high that a Tasmanian today has one or two convicts in the family tree. Be that as it may, there were good reasons to keep them hidden.

There ain’t nobody respects a crawler’s kith and kin. And respect is everything. Without respect a man is no better than a dog. Who’s going to give you a decent job if you’ve got the taint?

Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide (McPhee Gribble 1994)

Nowadays, Tasmania celebrates its convict heritage. Of the 11 female factories, probation stations and prisons that collectively constitute the UNESCO Heritage Australian Convict Site, 5 are in Tasmania. Colonial offenses have become good marketing.

Maria Island Tasmania
Maria Island, UNESCO signboard. Photo credit: Karen Kao

And that is as it should be. Convicts built Tasmania. They laid the roads and bridges. They cleared the land for free settlers to graze sheep or grow wheat. Convicts gave their life’s blood to create the Tasmania we see today.