Alison Pennington found them all in a road trip through remote Tasmania
Reaching the end as a state employee I decided to take a trip to the west coast of Tasmania. It’s a region defined by mines, forests and its isolation from the largest settlements during colonisation. And towns established to service industries have been abandoned and deprived of any investment decades on.
Tasmania has a history of some of the harshest convict penal settlements in Australia. As British industrial capitalism began exporting its class antagonisms to Australia from the late 1700s, petty criminals and political dissidents constituted the labour fodder for realising the empire’s quest for new markets and wealth. And this wealth was built off the back of the theft of land and systemic destruction of the Aboriginal peoples.
Shiploads of convicts were brought across vast seas and dumped in chains to work stolen land and resources. This history induces a confused national identity in a fragile nationalist fog. And in a place like the west coast of Tasmania, this dark past seems only a hop back in time, not least because the region’s ‘convict heritage’ has become a prime tourist drawcard. The remains of colonisation are a constant reminder that these towns were not integrated in any real way into the ongoing economic growth of the country.
I’m lucky to have travelled to that awe-inspiring land. Here I present some reflections that I wrote on the road, and jotted down from the front bar of a pub. I also reflect on the history of the region’s main penal colony, Sarah Island, and my evening at the nearby town’s pub in Strahan where over a few days, I became embroiled in the town’s stories, struggles and rumour mills.
Time stood still
Excuse me while I pick my jaw off of the floor of the west coast of Tasmania, where it has been the last few days. Expecting a tourist mecca, there appears to be no-one on these roads, or in these tiny towns. Just me, weaving through lush wilderness, brain ticking, and crows feasting on the roadkill (looks like giant rat?!). This image seems to fit an unshakeable knowing that this land saw brutal projects of the British empire—toxic, torturous beginnings of this settler colonial country. I was stopping to take photos of mountains, ancient trees and rivers, before I realised that this entire place is just that. Its beauty is unparalleled; its past as dark as can be imagined.
Passing through these ex- and current mining and forestry towns today, accessible by roads to all of Tasmania only from the 1960s (think about that), I was reminded of the ways that inequality presents itself in Australia today. Here, the towns of miners, ‘the backbone of the Australian economy!’ But houses are in derelict condition, the towns have no resources. The commodities boom never reached these miners. Single concrete-slabbed schools that appear as though they haven’t received funding for decades. What kind of opportunity does a kid in this school have? Meanwhile, elite private school kids with knee-high socks and lacrosse sticks enter the iron gates of sandstone buildings somewhere on Sydney’s north shore.
People said visiting Tasmania is like ‘going back in time’. Well it seems years of economic developments in Australia have been entirely detached from poor, isolated towns like this. Time has stood still:
Hell’s Gates—This is what the poor souls being carted to slave labour camps called this entrance to the Macquarie Harbour. Sarah Island penal colony (est. 1822) lay beyond—an experiment in institutionalised labour methods. Lives reduced to inputs into the production of ships, and lives lost merely a necessary condition for delivering the empire’s ‘cost neutral’ penal settlement solution. Work in chains, floggings, sleeping quarters without space to lay down, and food that lead to scurvy and dysentery were saved for the convicts who’d turned particularly mean (by a mean system). But also for those who committed the life-long punishable crime of stealing a pair of shoes, or trying to escape other camps.
Some 9,100 lashes fell on Sarah Island’s prisoners in a single year; 156 escape attempts in the first six years—half died trying. The land was harsh, cold and unforgiving. Separated from the mainland by turbulent seas and hundreds of kilometres away from other settled areas. One group of seven men managed to escape while on work duties, only to starve in the wilderness, picking off one man at a time to eat to survive. And the harshness of this wilderness remains.
After a few years of high death rates and the Van Diemen’s Land shipbuilding industry off the ground, shipping capital and its colonial administrators realised there was better bang for buck by not killing the convicts. Can’t have the labour dying on us! Their concession? A single covered building and a cell to sleep in. Here still remains the ramps where more than 100 ships were made during Sarah Island’s 11-year term.
I had a big night at the Strahan’s local on Thursday night, where the pool competition brings everyone to the pub. I met generations of local workers—young miners, builders and hospitality workers—and talked to dads and extended families, heard stories, laughed a lot. People embraced me, shared their lives and problems so earnestly. I propelled myself into some of the history (and sensitivities) as I was hungry to find out what made the town tick, to hear people’s thoughts on the insurance company that monopolised a lot of the town’s services and put locals out of business, how young people imagined their future, how the Franklin dam project ending in the 1980s affected people after the promise of lucrative jobs, and off the back of a campaign that gave birth to the Australian environmental movement.
People were hesitant to talk politics (which many saw as synonymous with corruption), but I pushed on, determined to create the space where people could speak their mind and see what unfolded. After a few drinks, people were chatting about poor health and safety standards and effects of widespread subcontracting in the region. A timid young man, who stood behind his friends most of the night, spoke of the recent deaths on nearby sites of his uncle and others in the community. ‘We don’t talk politics in this town’, they said. This was politics, I told them.
When the poncy rich kid who just returned from Hobart college and seemed to take pleasure shitting on others found out I was a unionist, he brought his dad over (who owns a big tourist boat in town) to supposedly staunch me out. In a town where young people have to commute long distances to get to high school, and where the majority never get to university, the homecoming elitism of this boy reeked. I put that kid in his place a few times over the night (unintentionally to an audience) and everyone seemed really happy about that. Gave me high fives and hugs—like I had done a good deed.
I was sad to leave Strahan. But I drove on into the beautiful day to Queenstown. My filthy hangover just adding to the eerie haze of that town.
On Tasmania’s west coast, I saw landscapes of raw untouched beauty and time capsule towns, awe-inspiring and ‘quaint’ to non-locals, but a lived reality of economic isolation and political alienation from the mainland for those living there.
As global stagnation dawns on Australia, with slowing growth and unemployment rising, the once-improving conditions of those in the cities will come to appear closer to those kept at the bottom—the working poor, Aboriginal people, migrants, those in neglected regions. And here there is a space for newfound solidarity.
I’ve learnt that the best way to build that solidarity is to truly understand people, and to do that you have to listen to them. Immerse yourself in the places that mean something to them. Demonstrate respect for experience, but then engage and challenge people to link this experience to a bigger picture; weave individuals into a whole.
I think it is important to get an understanding of the vastness of experience in this country—see how people live outside your neck of the woods. I like to consider what these experiences mean for a common politics to all.
About the author
Alison is a researcher in economics and industrial relations in Australia, and an organiser in the Community and Public Sector Union. With roots in the youth socialist organisation Resistance (defunct) and since across other organisations nationally and internationally, she has been active in campaigns for the rights of workers, students, women and indigenous peoples. Alison writes in Marxist political economy with an interest in financialisation, the state and imperialism, housing, and social reproduction, and seeks to rebuild the Australian radical political economy tradition.