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Australia Thousands of convicts died in Tasmania. Where many lie remains a mystery

02:42  05 july  2020
02:42  05 july  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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In the early 19th century more convicts were sent to Tasmania . However transportation to Tasmania ended in 1852. In 1862 Margaret Coghlan was the last woman hanged in Tasmania . However thousands of Tasmanian soldiers died in the First and Second World wars.

a group of people riding on the back of a horse: During its peak, the penal colony at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula had turned into a small town. (State Library of New South Wales, public domain) © Provided by ABC NEWS During its peak, the penal colony at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula had turned into a small town. (State Library of New South Wales, public domain)

It is believed almost 7,000 convicts died under sentence during Tasmania's convict period.

About 75,000 convicts did time in Tasmania, or Van Diemen's Land as it was then, under a punishment system that ended in 1853.

Most convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland and some lie in known burial sites like the notorious Isle of the Dead at Port Arthur.

Archaeologist Dr Richard Tuffin said many burial sites were still a mystery, particularly at the 45 former probation stations scattered around the island.

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"We don't really know what's being lost," Dr Tuffin said.

"There's still quite a lot to be done in identifying places that were near to these big stations."

Many were interred at parish burial sites, some of which were later developed into schools and parks.

Dr Tuffin is hopeful local history groups can add pieces to the puzzle when it comes to the former stations.

"If we don't know where they are, what's to stop the bulldozers?"

'Duty of care' for dead convicts

During service in Van Diemen's Land, convicts died from accidents, disease, murder, suicide and old age.

Dr Tuffin has studied the post-mortem treatment of convicts, as well as working to identify burial grounds.

He said there was a misconception about the treatment of convicts when they died, and brutality had been romanticised over the years.

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"When we think about convicts we like to think about all those stories of brutality and horror," he said.

"We are thinking they were thrown in holes or have heard stories about them being buried standing up and stacked in graves with a bit of lime thrown over them," he said.

"I wanted to see how true that was. What I found was there was a duty of care."

Dr Tuffin said during his research he found that in most cases convicts were buried in coffins and given a service.

"There's many accounts of graves having a bit of wood put up," he said.

He said churches were paid a modest amount by the government to hold a service.

"Absolutely, there were cases of maltreatment of the dead, like there is today."

'We worry every day'

Dr Tuffin said soldiers posted in the colony had a higher death rate than convicts.

"The death rate for convicts was actually incredibly low," Dr Tuffin said.

"The people who are keeping watch on the convicts are dying at a higher rate than the convicts themselves."

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During its peak, the penal colony at Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula had turned into a small town.

A cemetery was created on a small nearby island, with the bodies rowed out and buried until 1876.

More than 400 convicts lie on the island, as well as soldiers and free settlers.

Dr Tuffin has studied parish burial records and probation station records during his work to identify sites.

He said there were burial sites of convicts elsewhere on the Tasman Peninsula, Launceston, and the West Coast, as well as at probation stations in the channel area, such as South Port, Dover and Port Esperance.

"They would have all had attached burial grounds but I wasn't able to identify where they were," he said.

He said further studies were needed to find other burial grounds, involving complex archival work.

"Let's identify them," he said.

Dr Tuffin said the sites should not be dug up, and is concerned development could occur on top of them.

"That's what we worry about every day," he said.

Protecting heritage, respecting the dead

There are 5,000 places listed in the Heritage Register in Tasmania, including some cemeteries and burial grounds.

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Heritage Tasmania works manager Ian Boersma said from time to time land owners and developers needed advice on how to manage cemeteries or potential grave sites.

While he said it's not common, on his first day in the job he got a call about some road works that had uncovered a burial site.

"Some workman had uncovered suspected graves, so we went down there and it was later determined with archaeological input that these were grave sites that had been uncovered," he said.

He said there were many churches in the Heritage Register that had cemeteries attached to them.

"Churches are often bought privately," he said.

"That presents quite interesting challenges for the new owners.

"Whoever owns a historic cemetery would not ordinarily expect to disturb burials and the community also expects that."

Treading carefully

Mr Boersma said known burial grounds with no above-ground monuments also posed challenges.

"Quite a few cemeteries were rehabilitated to become park land," he said.

"Sometimes we don't know how far a cemetery extended to.

"You have to act cautiously and have a contingency plan in place in case you do strike a burial."

He gave the example of works near St Johns Park in New Town.

"A condition of the development was a historical study so we could get information on where burials were," he said.

Mr Boersma said there was room for more work on identifying burial grounds.

"The exact extent of burial grounds is not mapped out," he said.

"Convict history is a large part of our state's history.

"There's definitely a lot of work to be done in understanding the historical legacy of the convict system in Tasmania and that includes convict cemeteries."

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