In the last round of grants awarded by the Australian Research Council, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers was awarded funds for a three year project examining landscapes of convict labour. Titled Landscapes of Production and Punishment: the Tasman Peninsula 1830-77, the project commences in April of this year and will see archaeologists, historians and demographers from the University of New England, the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, University of Tasmania and University of Liverpool, use the physical landscape and documentary record to engage with the organisation, processes and outputs of convict labour on a scale never-before seen.
The grant is a recognition that the Australian convict story is concerned as much with labour and production as it is with punishment and reform. The gaols, hiring depots, penal stations and work camps, as well as the domestic residences and places of work to which assignees and passholders were tied, remain today as physical expressions of the otherwise invisible forces which shaped convict labour management. Built and continually developed by prisoner labour, these places held workforces governed by an extraordinary mixture of punishment and production aims. Barracks, wards and separate cells held prisoners in between – and sometimes during – their bouts of work. The flogging yards, solitary cells and stone-breaking yards received the unwilling. Interior and exterior spaces were designated as work sites, where shoes were made, metal wrought, stone quarried and timber harvested. These spaces, as well as the men and women within them, were controlled by the built and regulatory environment which surrounded them. Factors at the global, colonial and local scale acted upon these landscapes, affecting their formation and development, as well as the processes and products of prisoner labour within them.
That landscapes of convict labour were formed and shaped by multi-scale forces should not come as a revelation. Setting the places and spaces we study within their proper social, political and economic contexts is just good historical archaeological practice. Archaeologists and historians have commonly worked in synchrony to examine the bigger questions about our convict past, in particular during the post-1980s debates about the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative data to convey the complexities of convict lived experiences. The two fields have particularly worked well together to recover lost convict life narratives. Recently, however, there has been a notable divergence. Historians have tapped further into the massive potential of the datasets, examining and analysing the life-course data of thousands of convicts to draw new conclusions about the lives of prisoners before, during and after their incarceration. There has not been a similar big picture approach from historical archaeologists, who have retained a focus on individual sites and data types. Often a pragmatic response to the very real limitations of funding and time, it has meant that archaeologists have not been able to help shape the direction of the wider debate.
Focussing on the convict stations and sites of the Tasman Peninsula, this ARC project will illustrate how the physical record can be linked to the ‘big data’ approaches taken by the historians. A foundation of the project will be the archaeological surveys of the Port Arthur hinterland and the area around the former Cascades Probation Station (Koonya). Following the successful application of the technique to better understandings of the Coal Mines and Port Arthur Historic Sites, high definition airborne remote sensing (LiDAR) will map the sites associated with the extraction, transport and refinement of the area’s materials during the convict period: the roads, paths, tramways, building sites, saw pits, working platforms. For the first time we will comprehensively and accurately visualise the labour landscape within which Port Arthur and the Cascades Probation Station were situated. This will add to existing and augmented studies of the production centres of the Coal Mines and the Tasman Peninsula’s other probation stations.
The project will show how we can really only begin to understand the experiences of convicts and gaolers alike through an engagement with both the changing physical realities which defined their lives, as well as the intent of the evolving convict system as defined in the historical record. Mapping landscape change across time will be a core focus of the archaeological process, the change reflective of the multi-scale influences shaping convict labour management. This will require a close and thorough reading of the historical sources, through which the form of these influences are best expressed. This project will draw upon the trove of statistical data and correspondence records, allowing better understanding of how the labour landscape developed, as well as the quantities and movement flows of men and materiel. The close linking of the data to the physical landscape will also provide the opportunity to ground-truth the archive. A key component of this will be the analysis of thousands of convict records – many of them previously unavailable in transcript form. The incidental life narratives embodied within such documentary sources can be used to place the people back in the landscape, helping us understand how the built and regulatory environment shaped and was shaped by their experience, at the same time as moulding labour relations between prisoners and administrators.
In addition to the research outcomes throughout the project’s life, we intend to produce a research roadmap for engaging with places of convict labour, providing a model for similar approaches. It will also feed into the continued interpretation of the Tasman Peninsula, an important consideration as the number of visitors coming to the World Heritage-listed site of Port Arthur are only increasing. Through such interpretive means, we can further an understanding that convict places like Port Arthur sat at the heart of complex systems of production and punishment.
Professor Martin Gibbs, University of New England
Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, University of Tasmania
Associate Professor David Roberts, University of New England
Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool
Dr David Roe, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Dr Jody Steele, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Dr Richard Tuffin, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority
Susan Hood, Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority