The Commandant’s Daughter (Travelling South)

Females guilty of disobedience of orders, neglect of work, profane, obscene or abusive language, insubordination, or other turbulent or disorderly or disrespectful conduct, shall be punished by the superintendent with close confinement in a dark or other cell, until her case shall be brought under consideration of the Principal Superintendent.

Rules & Regulations, 1829, Cascades Female Factory, South Hobart

 

I am doing my best during this visit to be quiet and observe. I use silence as a way of keeping distance and protecting myself; in conversations with my father, for example, to avoid complications, or any situation that my son calls ‘awkward’.

To achieve this, I take on an earlier persona that is very familiar to me, from my years of growing up and young adulthood in Melbourne; a part of me I name ‘The Governess’ or ‘The Abolitionist’ - nineteenth century, inevitably, so grave; seen to be disapproving, stern and perhaps lacking in feeling outside her moral quest. The woman who can be depended on to remember the titles of obscure books or records, dates and the endless cycle of historical ‘cause and effect’ when required, furnishing fact-based knowledge that can be useful in arguments.

One of those women from the Colonial era, her skin becoming paler as a result of the moment of being photographed, or because of the contrast with her sober clothes, hair flattened and darkened hard against her scalp.

All this reminds me of a portrait owned previously by my grandfather, perhaps bought in Vienna, the man my father says was a ‘tyrant’ but also a great aesthete with an expansive knowledge of European high culture. I recall how my mother spoke about her girlhood as spent hiding out in hollowed out trees, where the dirt at her feet was coloured grey, and the branches all around her …

Trying to remember her, where the ants pricked at her bare feet, so white in the shadows. I’m crying now as I feel her absence.

 

On the way to Port Arthur, the bus driver tells us the story of the Commandant’s daughter, who ‘escaped’ (is that the right word to use here; she went missing; left?) one afternoon and how her nanny was punished as a consequence: three days in solitary confinement. I think about this forgotten woman punished for the wrongdoing of another.

At Port Arthur, my father, son and I try to find the cell where the servant was imprisoned, with no success. We don’t have enough time. We also try to find a stone table where – the bus driver told us – the prison doctor carried out experiments on inmates that resembled the ‘research’ carried out under the direction of Eduard Wirths at Auschwitz. The bus driver told us that there were ghosts in this space, in this place. (Later I try to fact-check either of the above stories, but find nothing online to prove or disprove them).

Our visit is a little rushed, there is so much to see. We walk up the hill to the Separate Prison, built in 1849 – that at the time of construction was seen to reflect ‘modernity’ in nineteenth century penology, in that ‘harsh physical punishment within the prison was rejected in favour of punishment of the mind. Flogging gave way to solitary confinement.’

Outside a sign asks visitors to be silent so that we can imagine how it felt to be jailed here. This sign appealed to me, as this silence I thought was also asking us white Australians to show some respect at this ‘sacred site’ in our country’s history; a prison, that although considered enlightened - a ‘Model Prison’ - drove its inmates insane.

A prison with its own innovative brand of cruelty (see the masks, silence and isolation) that might symbolise the particularly Australian penchant for torture, seeing that we as a people have inflicted official forms of torture, under the rubric of punishment and control, on the young; the weak and vulnerable; the poor, the non-citizen and non-white repeatedly since 1788.

‘This is so familiar,’ I say to my father after reading that the Separate Prison inmates were referred to by the number of their cell, never by their names. I say how asylum seekers imprisoned at Curtin, or Woomera were likewise never named. Camp guards there used numbers that included a reference to their ship of arrival when speaking of the immigration detainees, or the ‘residents’ as they were sometimes called.

‘This is worse,’ my father replies. ‘As here it’s the number of the cell, the building, nothing that relates to them as an individual.’

For these prisoners, kept in total silence (guards wore felt slippers and used sign language to avoid making any sound) spending 23 hours a day in their single-occupant cell, the mark of their identity referred to the prison building. Prisoners in this sense merged with the stones, the walls that imprisoned them.

At the Separate Prison, my ten-year-old son dashes about, rushing around the white-washed halls, in and out of the cells and then to the pulpit of the Chapel (my father takes a photo of him there). Prisoners were let out of their cells for one hour a day - when outside they were hooded - to exercise, or go to Chapel, where they were held in individual cubicles facing forward to hear the sermon like soon to be butchered cattle.

According to a Port Arthur Historic Site fact sheet, to revolt against the system prisoners ‘would insert their words to ‘talk’ to their fellows under the cover of hymn singing’.

‘Come here, come here,’ my son pulls at us. ‘Come here.’ He leads us to the prison’s punishment area, known as ‘the dumb cell’ that today has a small light-bulb flickering illumination, but where in the past prisoners were kept for periods of up to 30 days in total darkness and silence, locked into a pitch-black space behind four heavy doors. I imagine how it must have felt to hear the first door locked, the second, the third …

The jail exhibit mentions that the Separate Prison’s ethos continues at ‘Supermax’ prisons, such as the ‘Katingal’ unit inside Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney, which had surveillance cameras, electronically operated doors and no windows, but was closed in 1978 after human rights complaints. Today, Australia’s remaining ‘Supermax’ area is at Goulburn – a place named the High Risk Management Unit (HRMU), but the prisoners call HARM-U.

 

The Governor’s House is a ruin now, but if you look down from the small hill, there is a beautiful garden with a fountain. The guide at Port Arthur says how the two axes of the prison were symbolised by the Commandant’s House on one hill, on the facing side, and the Church on the other, keeping watch over the inmates. When walking down the elegant incline of the garden, my father comments how seeing this garden, so well-tended with the delicate roses, makes him think of Nazi concentration camps – civilisation and barbarity.

At Sachenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz where the officers forced inmates to play music (one site refers to the repertoire including ‘marches, camp anthems, salon music, easy-listening and dance music, popular songs, film and operetta melodies, opera excerpts, and classical music such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony’).

“Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance”

— 'Death Fugue' Paul Celan, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

Nigel, the bus driver, with his brown hair sticking low from his head like broken wires, cheeks coloured by rosacea, maintains a steady monologue the length of the journey from Hobart to Port Arthur, cracking jokes and telling stories of cannibalism to the small group of tourists (my father, my son and I; two other Australians and five Chinese people, three of whom sleep the entire journey). My father says: ‘Bus drivers on tours always have this kind of patter’.

Imagine the situation, Nigel says, you steal something out of desperation, out of poverty, remember this is the time of the Famine (this convict in his telling is Irish) you come to Hobart you work, but you’re depressed, there’s nothing to do, missing your wife and children so you drink, you commit another crime and are sent to Port Arthur. Imagine this life, he says, the sadness of it.

And yet, another guide at Port Arthur – a man with a very loud, forceful voice he seems to be speaking against the elements, against the wind - cautions us against thinking that the Port Arthur convicts were ‘misunderstood victims’. He says: they were, in fact, ‘bad, bad men’ ... ‘the worst of the worst’ for whom being lashed was a mark of honour (he provides detail abut how a flogging cut through the skin to the bone). He urges us to remember that Port Arthur offered a way out to these men from the ‘mean streets’ of London, from the North of England.

As at Port Arthur if you wanted to improve your circumstances you could. You could learn a trade, and many did. There was a library, he gestures to the upper walls of the ruined Penitentiary building, with hundreds of books: not just religious books, all kinds of books. This chance to redeem yourself, the guide says, was even more marked for the boys sent here. Those boys sent to Point Puer, who were kept separate from the male inmates - ‘for obvious reasons’ - and kept there on the island, he gestures across the expanse of water. I feel cold in my inappropriate clothing. Those boys, the guide at Port Arthur says, were offered a new start in this country, impossible to imagine if they stayed in England. (According to the Port Arthur Historic Site website, three thousand boys were sent to the prison at Point Puer between 1834 and 1849 – the youngest inmate was nine years-old).

On the way to Port Arthur, before launching into a never-ending, gory tale of convict Alexander Pearce’s multiple escapes from Sarah Island, out there on Tasmania’s wild, wild West Coast, who at one point of the narrative was watched by Aborigines amazed to see this white man eating the corpses of ‘his mates’ (especially remembering how for them food was everywhere in the bush) Nigel refers to the Four Corners documentary on Don Dale I watched the night before, linking this modern-day atrocity with how children were treated at Port Arthur.

A few days later in Melbourne, on our way to our first decent coffee of the morning at a local café, I carry a newspaper that has a photo of Dylan Voller, his face covered in a ‘spit-mask’ shackled by his ankles and wrists to a ‘mechanical restraint’ (a metal chair where the 17 year-old will be immobilised for around two hours after reports that he threatened to self-harm, while being held at a prison in Darwin that had previously held adult prisoners).

On seeing Voller’s photo, his face hooded, his body shackled, my son, bouncing down the South Yarra street, after noting the expensive imported cars (‘Look Mum a Lamborghini, another Mercedes …’) calls out: ‘Port Arthur, Port Arthur!’

 

‘How’s that, that bit alright?’

‘There ya go. Yep no, worries. Alright you keep chilling out yeah?’

Dylan Voller replies: ‘Yeah’

‘We’ll come back and revisit this, yeah? We don’t wanna keep you in here.’

(Guards instructing)

‘Alright. You’re doing well.

 

I watched the August 2014 CCTV footage from Don Dale Youth Detention Centre of a 14 year-old boy (Jake Roper) trying to open the door to his isolation cell in the Behavioural Management Unit with a broken light-bulb and then screaming out in his distress after being locked up for 15 days on my phone at the Best Western hotel in Hobart.

The door to the boy’s cell that had no running water, no natural light, no fan or air conditioning, we are told, was left open by mistake that afternoon. The boy enters the main area, outside the other cells where another five children (aged 14-17) are also being kept.

He calls out: ‘I’ve been in the back cells for how long bruz?!’

The guard replies: ‘Have you had time out or not?’

‘Yeah, but I’ve been fuckin’ stuck in here for how long?!’

Four guards behind the reinforced door watch the child lose control, bashing against the walls and breaking windows; as do the other five children, some of whom are seen literally trying to climb up the walls, or repeatedly scratching their names onto the concrete walls. Two boys are locked in one of the cells, unable to walk around because of the lack of space.

‘That door’s not going to hold,’ one guard says.

‘He’s supposed to be getting out next week,’ says another.

Some can be heard laughing, during the 36 minute recording, others add: ‘Fuckin’ idiot’ and ‘He’s an idiot, bro.’ More laughter.

‘If he tries to get in, poke him back through,’ says one. You can hear the child banging against the walls, smashing windows. ‘Go grab the fuckin’ gas and fuckin’ gas them through fuckin’ get Jimmy to gas them through here.’

The distressed child is tear-gassed, as are the other children for eight minutes. ‘I can’t fuckin’ breathe,’ the child says.

‘That’ll learn you,’ says a guard in response.

One guard adds: ‘Now he’s shitting himself.’

At one point a guard says: ‘Let the fucker come through because while he’s comin’ through he’ll be off balance, I’ll pulverise, I’ll pulverise the little fucker. Oh shit, were recording hey.’ The six boys dressed only in shorts, are then taken outside by guards in protective masks where they are handcuffed and shoved face down in the dirt to be washed down by a firehose. Don’t put it in my face, one of the children says, I can’t breathe.

Adapted from Australia's Shame by Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Four Corners ABC, broadcast 25 July 2016

 

One of the first things I did after returning home was to go to the Melbourne Museum’s Indigenous Bunjilaka exhibition with a friend and my son who ran around, between the displays while telling us that people in the photographs weren’t ‘Aborigines’ (because they were too pale-skinned) to then receive a quiet lesson from me on Australia’s history. My friend was impressed when my little boy knew the word ‘segregation’ when talking about racism and my work in the United States, I felt proud as well, of course.

Before we entered the exhibit my friend gave my son a tiny Aboriginal Land Rights flag badge that he could wear on his jacket. My son replied that he was worried if he wore it, it might damage his clothes.

‘Ah, the Black Prince,’ my friend said when I mentioned the name of Brian Martin the first Commissioner appointed to Royal Commission into the Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that was announced within the 24 hours of the Four Corners report’s broadcast (Martin later resigned over perceived ‘conflicts of interest’ to be replaced by Mick Gooda, former Australian Human Rights Commission Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Margaret White, a former Supreme Court of Queensland justice).

My friend mentioned Martin’s judgement in a 2009 case in Alice Springs, where five white Australian men – the so-called ‘Ute 5’ - were convicted of ‘manslaughter by negligence’ for a case where the men drove their utility vehicle into a camp of Aboriginal people at Todd River, shouting out racist epithets (calling the campers ‘niggers’ and ‘black bastards’ according to two witnesses) and brutally kicked one man, Kwementyaye Ryder, causing his death.

During his sentencing, Martin repeatedly referred to the fact that the young men, aged between 18-23 were all of ‘good character’. The fact that they had gone at one point to get a replica of a Colt 45, which they shot into the air, causing the campers to scatter meant very little (and there was ‘no sinister purpose’ behind them returning with the pistol, he said: ‘You only wanted to have fun by firing it and making a loud noise as you drove around.' In general, Martin claimed, the men were simply ‘hooning’ as their counsel claimed, or ‘lairising’).

‘Of otherwise good character,’ my friend repeated.

For my friend who has spent the past two decades working closely with the families of people who have died in prisons and police custody, the announcement of the Royal Commission meant very little. At no point had the government done the most basic thing needed, my friend said, there was no call for the end of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees.

No statement as to how the children would have any redress, as a result of the inquiry. No mention of the racist assumptions underpinning the shocking rates of incarceration among Australia's Indigenous communities; no talk of how the investigation might cover other jurisdictions with similar problems.

Earlier, my friend searched out a photo of Dylan Voller on his phone – the child whose abuse from the age of 13 within the prisons of the Northern Territory was displayed to the world on the Four Corners program, his mother says that her son had been in and out of the system from the age of 10, or 11  – smiling with his sister. ‘See, this is a nice photo of Dylan, see this photo, this one here.’

 

At the Cascades Female Factory Historic Site, the few ruins of the convict prison and later asylum where women were interned in Hobart – we go there together, my son and I by bus in the cold weather, along the streets with no trees – I see that there is a display in a glass case. I look closer and see that the convict has the same name as my late mother. I look closer:

Byrne Ann

Tried: Kildare 20 March 1849

Embarked: 7 years

Arrived: 29 September 1849

Roman Catholic neither read nor write

 

Transported for: felony gold watch & chain. Gaol Report: convicted before, quiet, single. Stated this offence: stealing a gold watch & chain from Mr Wilson at Kildare (previous conviction) discharged for linen. Single.

Surgeon’s Report: Bad.

Ann Byrne was aged 23, five foot 3 inches and a third, with a fresh freckled complexion, with a round head and dark hair; a high forehead, dark eyebrows, light hazel eyes, small mouth and a large chin, according to the official report.

Weeks later I’m trying to find notes, or photographs on my phone that I took that day to describe her, unsure if I have confused ‘Ann Byrne’ with other women sent to the Factory, who were branded ‘insolent’ and punished for this; women who were separated into three distinct ‘classes’ and punished if they spoke with members of another class. Women who gave birth at the Factory, women who grew old within its walls and the women who died there.