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St Helena Island

St Helena Island
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Date:
Location:
Country:
Latitude:
Longitude:
Altitude:
04 February 2018
Brisbane
Australia
27°24'30"S
153°14'00"E
0 - 32m ASL
Google Maps Link
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

THE “Cat-O-Nine-Tails” sped out of Manly Harbour across the choppy blue waters of Moreton Bay towards a low volcanic island forming part of the chain of Green Islands running from the mouth of the Brisbane River southwards towards Cleveland.

The Cat-O-Nine-Tails

The Cat-O-Nine-Tails

Most of Moreton Bay’s main islands are easily accessible, but St Helena Island is one of the elusive historical islands visited only by tour boat. The boat was full of local tourists, nearly all from Brisbane, all out on a day trip to discover a significant part of our history.

Yachts heading out into the bay

Yachts heading out into the bay

We approached a very long wharf extending out into the bay. The waters around the island must be very shallow, but the tide was already high concealing any shallow mud or sand flats surrounding it.

St Helena Island

St Helena Island

The boat docked near the end of the wharf and we all climbed off and walked along the long wharf to the island. Initially the wharf was wooden, with quite an accumulation of white bird droppings on the timber boards under the railings.

The long wharf

The long wharf

The wooden wharf led onto a long stone causeway with a gravel path over it. The wharf was angled and at the end of the causeway was the remains of a pool built and used by the inhabitants of the island in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Looking back along the wharf

Looking back along the wharf

A fairly long walk along the causeway led to a sandy beach which the wavelets sapped upon. A few ragged mangroves grew along the beach which ended at quite a large mangrove forest. Here we arrived in a large grassy flat with trees growing around it giving some shade. We had arrived in the St Helena Island National Park. Originally known as Noogoon by the Aboriginal people who hunted and gathered food here for thousands of years before the white people came.

Approaching the beach

Approaching the beach

Near the causeway stood the remains of a boat house, built in 1868, now little more than a stone wall. The causeway was built about ten years later to allow access to and from the island during when the tide was out. Beyond the boat house was a large shelter where we all gathered to start the tour.

Remains of the boat shed

Remains of the boat shed

The island was chosen by the early settlers as a prison. At the time Brisbane was a growing town having outgrown the original penal settlements of convicts transported half a world away from England, and Queensland had just become independent from New South Wales. It operated between 1867 and 1932. A board listed the names of all the prisoners who were sentenced to hard labour on this island for various offences committed locally.

The island interior

The island interior

A chubby man wearing denim blue colours and a small hat led the tour. He had a good strong voice despite quite a stutter, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. He had two assistants wearing white clothes as was worn by the prisoners. As we would go around the island, they would enact various scenes and duties performed by the guards and prisoners. Each prisoner had a three digit number embroidered into their shirts. Like the prisoners on the island, they were referred to by their numbers, not their names.

Beach near the large shelter

Beach near the large shelter

The guard led us along a dirt road in between fields of long grass where the prisoners would have once worked. The frame of what had been a solitary windmill stood in the middle of the field.

Windmill in the abandoned fields

Windmill in the abandoned fields

Returning to the coast we reached the top of a low hill from where a brick hole stood in the ground. Going to the beach below the hill I could see it was a lime kiln. Coral had been extracted from the reefs surrounding the island and burnt here to construct the cement used to build the stone buildings on the island. It produced about 40 tonnes of lime every year.

Looking into the lime kiln

Looking into the lime kiln

All the stone used for construction was mined from the island’s volcanic rock. The coral lime was used as mortar and coating to protect the soft rock. Much of the protection has now eroded causing the rock to be very brittle and most structures here are very fragile.

The lime kiln

The lime kiln

Near the kiln back on the hill was a cemetery. This was in two parts. The first of these was a small fenced off area with the headstones of the six children of the wardens who had died on the island whilst they were serving here. They died from the common childhood diseases of the time. The children lived and were educated here. The wardens themselves were buried on the mainland if they died.

Childrens' cemetery

Childrens' cemetery

Nearby was a much larger fenced off area with concrete crosses all leaning a little. These were the tombstones of the prisoners who had died here. Whilst the island had functioned as a prison, visits were very infrequent and heavily controlled, so family visiting the dead prisoners’ graves were very few and far between. Most dead prisoners would never be visited by the living on the mainland. Each tombstone had a number engraved in it. This was the prisoner’s number. The prisoners weren’t known by name but by their allocated number.

Prisoners' cemetery

Prisoners' cemetery

From the cemetery we followed a dirt road inland. A van was carrying some old people so they wouldn’t need to walk. A sign by the road said this part of the island was restricted access, entry allowed only on tour or with a special permit. This would be very hard to visit independently.

Sugar mill ruins up the hill

Sugar mill ruins up the hill

For a few tens of metres the track rose quite steeply. The guide assured us this was the steepest part of the tour. On top of the grassy hill were a couple of large olive trees and nestled in amongst them was the ruins of a brick sugar mill.

Sugar mill and olive tree

Sugar mill and olive tree

Here we discovered the prison labourers ran a very successful sugar and olive farm, making for Australia’s most profitable prison. It had to be that way as the prison was set up not long after Queensland’s independence from New South Wales. With independence came a complete cut of funds (remembering the Australian government wasn’t founded until Federation in 1901). The prison was created as a means of the new Queensland Government to be able to make enough money to survive.

Sugar mill ruins

Sugar mill ruins

The income made from the farming here more than covered the prison’s operating costs. Somehow, we have lost that now with modern prisons now being a huge drain on the government’s financial resources. Perhaps those who run prisons these days should learn from the success of St Helena.

Sugar mill ruins

Sugar mill ruins

The guide stood on top of a huge pile of rubble that had once been a towering chimney. It was deliberately demolished at the start of World War II to prevent it being a target for the invading Japanese who apparently considered chimneys to be targets as they involved industry.

Guide (the guard) presenting

Guide (the guard) presenting

The sugar mill itself was just a ruin deteriorating from decades of weathering. The olive trees remained extremely healthy, with their olives once being voted best in the world during a competition in Paris at the time the Eiffel Tower was opened.

Remains of the stack

Remains of the stack

The prisoners were sentenced to hard labour working in the fields, the mill, or workshops Monday to Friday and half of Saturday.

Carpentry shop

Carpentry shop

From the sugar mill we continued a gradual ascent to a substantial collection of stone ruins. This was the main prison. The first of the buildings we passed was the carpentry workshop. Beyond that was the main administration hall, with the prison cells on the other side.

Outside administration building

Outside administration building

The guide discussed the history of the island, saying it didn’t have anything directly to do with St Helena Island in the South Pacific where Napoleon Bonaparte died in its hostile prison, but the name came about when an Aboriginal prisoner was sent here because he borrowed an axe and was caught returning it. The Aboriginal communal culture allows you to borrow something as everything belongs to everyone, but you have to return it. That’s exactly what he did not realising that British culture considers taking something to be stealing.

Administration building

Administration building

Like all Aboriginal people he would have had a local name in his local language, but the white people would give each Aboriginal person a European name. This prisoner was named Napoleon. At the time he was sent over here, an unnamed island in the Green Isles. An official asked if the island had a name. It didn’t at the time (apart from the indigenous name, which the white people didn’t recognise), so upon seeing the Aboriginal man called Napoleon being sent here, he decided to call it St Helena, and the name stuck.

Admin building and walls

Admin building and walls

Napoleon didn’t die here. Three days after his arrival, he escaped, constructed a canoe, and paddled back to the mainland, never to be captured again.

Prisoner kitchen

Prisoner kitchen

Walking around the ruins, we passed the large prisoner kitchen, now no more than a crumbling ruin of large brick walls constructed from the red volcanic soil of the island.

Prisoner kitchen

Prisoner kitchen

From the ruins we continued heading up the final gentle grade of the hill to a well maintained wooden house. This was the museum of the island, and once the prison governor’s residence. It was segregated away from the riff raff of the prison, particularly keeping his wife and children away from it.

Museum (Governor's house)

Museum (Governor's house)

The grounds outside the house were just short grass now, but once had a spectacular garden run by the governor’s wife. The garden had fountains which were powered by prisoners riding bicycle mechanisms hidden away in a nearby shed when the wife had visitors and showed off her garden.

Some of the many exhibits

Some of the many exhibits

The guide told us this was their equivalent to Instagram or Facebook in those days. The garden had all sorts of exotic species of plant and tree they had collected from all around the world. Quite different to the photography and souvenirs we have nowadays.

View from museum verandah

View from museum verandah

Near the house was a large black cannon mounted on a large red trolley pointed towards Brisbane city. The cannon was significant in being one of the original cannons used by Nelson’s ships in the battle of Waterloo to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte. Our guide mentioned the names of Waterloo Bay and Wellington Point on the mainland are from the same battle. There is another identical cannon from the same battle in the Brisbane Gardens Point Botanical Gardens, and there are a few more around the city.

Cannon from battle of Waterloo

Cannon from battle of Waterloo

After looking through the museum, we settled in several rows of chairs under some huge olive trees for lunch, which we were provided. Following lunch the guides gave a demonstration on the flogging prisoners got for doing naughty things. The prison had its own judge who was responsible for allocating the punishments, to keep it reasonably transparent.

Punishment demonstration

Punishment demonstration

The punishments themselves were usually administered by other prisoners, usually those staying in the same cell as the naughty prisoner in exchange for a reduction in their sentence. The prisoner administering the punishment was required to lash them as hard as they could using the cat o nine tails.

Flogging demonstration

Flogging demonstration

There were limits to how many lashes could be given, and how they were delivered. The prisoner would be tied to a tripod of stakes. The demonstration was very funny. Another common punishment would be to make a prisoner carry a heavy cannon shot all day.

Carrying the shot

Carrying the shot

From there the guides led us back to the main ruins and took us down the other side. The first building we reached was the chapel. Although they were under a strict code of silence, they were allowed to sing hymns and say Amen here. Next to the chapel was the small courthouse for dealing with onsite offences.

The chapel

The chapel

They showed us the remains of the cell blocks. Each cell was quite small and housed twelve inmates sleeping in hammocks. They were all under a code of silence, and were not allowed to talk to each other in the cells or out in the fields where they worked. That sounded like a good arrangement, preventing prisoners from teaching novice prisoners how to become even more of a criminal.

One of the prison cell blocks

One of the prison cell blocks

Near the cells was one large common room area where the prisoners were allowed to talk. Our guide told us this was where the Australian Labor Party was founded from a group of 22 shearers who were imprisoned here in 1891 following the shearers and bushworkers strike in Barcaldine.

The common area

The common area

All that was left of these buildings were stone walls, some of which needed to be propped up by framework. The lime cement coating had largely fallen off, leaving the soft rock the bricks were made from exposed to quickly deteriorate. No wonder this was a restricted area. If these buildings had any floor, they had completely gone now replaced with grass.

Propped up wall

Propped up wall

We headed a bit further along to what looked like a small stone pit. This was one of the solitary confinement cells – always my favourite part of any prison. The cell was originally under the floor of the prison, giving a space about a metre and a half long, a metre wide and half a metre deep.

Admin building in the distance

Admin building in the distance

When prisoners were very naughty, they would be sent here to solitary confinement where they would be enclosed here for 23 hours a day, with two buckets – one with water, and the other which they could use as a toilet. In the total darkness it was up to the prisoner to work them out.

Solitary confinement cell

Solitary confinement cell

The guides gave us a very humorous demonstration about how the solitary confinement worked. They did mention though the regulations here were very lenient, where prisoners could not be sent here for more than 28 days, or receive 50 lashes. Apparently, the prisoners would much prefer to be flogged than sent here as the isolation does affect their mental health.

Solitary confinement demo

Solitary confinement demo

From the solitary confinement cell, we headed down the hill passing an old cart and following what had been Queensland’s first railway – a short section of track going from the end of the wharf up to these buildings. The guards and prisoners called it the Kangaroo Line because it bounced so much.

The Kangaroo Line

The Kangaroo Line

From the end of the railway we returned to the boat heading across the rough waters of Moreton Bay back to the free lands of the mainland.

End of tour

End of tour

 
 
 

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