180 years worth of harsh and brutal history is a lot to absorb in two days, even so Port Arthur’s famous historical convict settlement makes for a lasting impression.
There are many hours to be had exploring the crumbled ruins and derelict buildings. Prison cells so small that spending one second too long is enough to bring on a claustrophobic related anxiety attack. Most entertaining is the night ghost tour where you are treated to theatrical stories of hauntings and ghost sightings of the past. Flickering lanterns add to the effect and it’s not long before you both welcome and dread the idea of feeling an ice cold hand touch your shoulder.
Aside from the historical convict settlement, Port Arthur is also well known for the 1996 massacre, whereby a gunman sadly killed 35 people and injured 21. Understandably, no one in Port Arthur utters a world about the massacre. The only physical evidence that remains of this fateful day is a little memorial garden and the shell of the Broad Arrow Cafe – the cafe in which many lost their lives.
My observations and learnings from my two days in Port Arthur? Well, prisoners were subjected to harsh punishment and an inhumane reform system, hundreds of people died over the decades, some say that there are many Port Arthur ghosts and that the Parsonage is one of the most haunted sites in the world – it seems that Port Arthur is a place of pain and torture. But what of the massacre? Are there no ghosts here too, was this not a place of pain and torture? Anyone noticed the elephant in the room?
For me, the most spine chilling moment at Port Arthur occurred when I passed through the doors of what was once the Broad Arrow Cafe- I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to leave almost as quickly as I had entered. Does a place have to have ghosts for it to be considered haunted? I say no. I dispute that the Parsonage is one of the most haunted sites in the world – I say the Broad Arrow Cafe is.
Whilst I think it would be wrong to promote the massacre as a tourist attraction, I do think it raises an interesting question, how long does it take before a society can openly talk with emotional distance about a violent or calamitous event? The tour guides at Port Arthur were certainly quite cheerful discussing torture and killings some 100 years hence. But how long does it really take – 5 years, 10 years, 50 years? Perhaps society can only speak freely when everyone who knew the victims is dead? However we know it’s not that simple, the perceived guilt or innocence of the victims seems to mix things up even more. If 35 gangsters had been killed in a gangland attack no doubt within a short space of time the site would form the highlight of any tour to Port Arthur.
Do we as a society revere the innocent and scorn the guilty, in death as in life? The elephant at Port Arthur would suggest we do.