The 20th anniversary of the massacre at Port Arthur again raises pressing questions – for surviving victims, their families and the Australian community more broadly – about ways of remembering the tragedy.
The relationship between trauma, tourism, commemoration and the nature of the place itself is a complicated one.
From the time it was established, the settlement at Port Arthur was associated with trauma. It was meant to be.
The isolated prison, housing the worst convicts, was intended to instil fear to deter others. And the authorities played up the horror of punishment there.
Here convicts – already languishing as far from their homes as possible – were now subjected to unknown terrors in an alien wilderness. Though the actual administration was relatively “enlightened”, the image was unrelentingly negative.
Everyone, it seemed, had an interest in playing up the horror.
The full circle
In 1877, the prison was closed. The government sought to obliterate its dark history and the shame of a convict past by changing the township’s name to Carnarvon. And by selling off the prison buildings on condition they were demolished.
Yet almost immediately tourists began to flock to the place, creating an important local industry. Souvenirs, guidebooks and postcards appeared; convict buildings were turned into guesthouses.
Fishing and hunting were popular but many tourists were drawn by morbid curiosity and a taste for the macabre.
Those early tourists could be a raucous mob. Reports spoke of “merry crowds” who danced in the mess rooms; pilfered “relics”; enjoyed the “thrill” of being shut up in a cell; and shrieked at the tales of horror told by the guides.
Some were ex-convicts: one would, for an extra shilling, remove his shirt and display the scars left by the lash.
Some tourists might reflect on the past’s brutality or British perfidy, but generally, a good time was had by all. The violence and gruesomeness were an entertainment.
The horror was in stark contrast to the landscape itself. Though at first seen as gloomy, alien and oppressive, the natural setting soon came to be regarded as romantically wild, awe-inspiring and picturesque.
Tastes were changing. As romanticism seeped into popular consciousness, the idea of wilderness took on new meaning, something to be sought out rather than avoided.
The site’s neo-Gothic church, badly damaged by fire and covered with ivy, came to be seen as a romantically picturesque ruin.
Visitors drew attention to the irony of somewhere so beautiful being the scene of horror. Trauma amid beauty would become a common theme, revisited following the events of 1996.
A fine balance
Successive governments could not ignore the fact that Port Arthur was a money-spinner. In 1916, the site received some minimal protection. And, in 1928, the name was changed back to Port Arthur – Carnarvon had never caught on.
By 1937, the Tasmanian treasurer commended Port Arthur as:
The Stone Henge of Australia and one of the greatest tourist assets which this state possesses.
A more middlebrow and respectable class of tourist began to take an interest, admiring the site’s “Englishness” and the beauty of its historic ruins.
As one visitor put it in 1918, “bitter memories are fading into romantic interest”: the “beautiful workmanship” of the carved stone conjured up an English monastery rather than an Australian gaol.
A new management authority in 1987 treated the convict past with more sensitivity and respect, contrasting with some of the tackier commercial exploitation. But it still introduced a ghost tour that, on Viator’s tourism website, promises “ghoulish stories”, “terrifying tales”, “harrowing history” and a generally “spine-chilling” and “spooky” experience.
The melancholy and reflective were still jostled by people having a good time. For some reason, convict suffering is fun.
This touristic enjoyment of trauma poses a problem.
At places as diverse as Auschwitz, Ghana’s “slave castles”, the Tower of London, Gallipoli and Aboriginal massacre sites, this “dark tourism” is an important way of respecting the memory of past atrocity.
But often the response can verge on voyeurism and emotional indulgence; melancholy, pity and sorrow can be perversely pleasurable emotions.
What marks out convict tourism is the way that, while some tourists are moved, others are simply entertained. This lies at the core of the dilemma facing Port Arthur managers on the 20th anniversary of the massacre.
The tragedy that unfolded 20 years ago added another layer of horror to a site already scarred by atrocity, but one where heartbreak jostled awkwardly with holiday making.
The management’s immediate response was purposely low key, with a sensitively understated memorial to the massacre – off the beaten tourist track. It allowed tourists and workers to quietly remember the dead, who were also tourists and workers.
The switch to a more public commemoration for the 20th anniversary shows the dilemma remains: how to commemorate Port Arthur as a tourist site.
In truth, the best memorial to the victims of Martin Bryant, his Colt AR-15 and his FN FAL, will always be effective gun control.
This article is part of a package marking the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.