a tassie love story — part three — no ship, sherlock!

an escapade worthy of the elementary detective and his sidekick, watson.

sarah island is not a place you’d want to do time. its history is darker than a wintry day in june, when antarctic gales blow fierce across the rugged rocks of macquarie harbor.

hungry sharks are known to come right up on shore in search of a tasty morsel (you!)

when i first saw this, a leg was hanging out the mouth, but by the time i got my camera out, it was gone.

sarah island wasn’t on our itinerary when we plotted our trip to tassie’s west coast. we were seeking wilderness.

maps of tassie reveal a gaping blank spot in the lower left (southwest) quadrant, an area larger than nine european countries and about the size of the u.s. state of connecticut. in some places the nearest (dirt) road is 50km away. we were intrigued, hoping to experience the “wild rivers” and pristine rainforests at the back of tassie’s beyond. (birds, maybe?)

since roads were in short supply, we located a “family-owned” company offering boat trips across the vast macquarie harbor to the “franklin-gordon wild rivers national park”. the company’s ad featured “one of the world’s last truly unique world heritage wilderness experiences”, and a “stroll through an ancient forest”.

the big red boat

what we got was a five-hour trip on a spiffy red ferry boat up to a landing point where we disembarked for a walk through what could have been a disneyland wilderness theme park or a botanic garden exhibit.

so much for the vision of an aboriginal guide with a canoe gliding silently to a secret landing and clearing a path with his machete through dense underbrush to reveal previously unseen life forms. inflated expectations, ya think?

on the plus side, there are some photogenic 19th century lighthouses around hell’s gate, the treacherous entrance to macquarie harbor.

hell’s gate lighthouse warns mariners navigating the narrow passage to macquarie harbor
sorell point lighthouse is the second tallest in oz

the cruise begins at strahan, a munchkin-sized port (pop. 600) catering to the tourist trade astride hell’s gate, on a thin line between fantasy and cold, hard reality. strahan is a pale shadow of the thriving commercial hub that once exported copper and prized huon pine to the world. it’s also the gateway to sarah island, a convict settlement so miserable that….

“…Two or three (inmates) murdered their fellow-prisoners, with the certainty of being detected and executed, apparently without malice and with very little excitement, stating that they knew that they should be hanged, it was better than being where they were.”

the reality is, strahan makes a good bit of its living off sarah island’s horrid reputation.

as for fantasy, pernille had booked us into a former church converted to a bed and (no) breakfast. as kids, we used to get in trouble for sleeping in church, now they have a bed above the altar and charge handsomely for the privilege.

after stashing suitcases in the choir loft, we ventured into town, wondering what other sacrifices had been made at that altar.

strahan (pronounced strawn) runs a couple blocks in either direction from the boat dock. the first thing we encountered was fantasy; a billboard for a way, way, wa-a-a-y-y off broadway dramatic production titled “the ship that never was”, advertised as australia’s longest running play. (27 years! in a town of 600 people?)

hmmm, might be worth a look, we thought. there wasn’t much on the evening’s agenda. “church tv” was on the blink. so it was off to the box office to purchase a couple tickets. “sold out”, announced the young woman in the booth. a second show had been added that evening by popular demand, because anti-social distancing rules limit the theater capacity, but….

we struck up a conversation with the box office attendant, whose name was peta. she asked if by chance we had reservations for the next day’s boat trip. we did. she suggested we might want to wait to see the show til after the cruise, because the story would be more meaningful once we’d experienced sarah island. hmmm, dr. watson. a clue.

we reserved two seats for the following night.

the next morning we boarded the boat, excited about the promise of a “wilderness experience”. the first stop, however, was sarah island, so named by the first englishman to set foot there in honor of his boss’s wife. the aboriginal name for the place is langerrarerouna.

with all due respect to the island’s indigenous peoples, we’re sticking with “sarah island”.

which is where kiah (pronounced kai-ah) davey, the storyteller, takes over.

kiah enthralls audiences with tales of the island’s sordid history

kiah is in several ways an original. she traces her ancestry back to the first convict ships that arrived in australia from england in 1788. her great great uncle tom davey served as lieutenant governor of van dieman’s land, as tassie was known then, from 1812 until he was sacked in 1815.

tom was known as a drunkard who hung with the riff-raff in the slums of hobart. he scandalized the ladies with bawdy behavior in his shirtsleeves on sunday afternoons. he was, as they might say in tassie, a “davious character”. in spite of that, or maybe because of it, tassie now boasts a port davey, a davey river, the davey amphitheater (in strahan) and many davey streets and davey drives and dives of diverse descriptions.

when the big red ship arrived at sarah island, the passengers were divided into groups and assigned guides. so it was the luck of the draw that brought us to kiah, the historian.

kiah tells a harrowing tale of australia’s first “banishment settlement”, a place meant to be so awful it would terrify convicts into behaving. “it didn’t work,” kiah observes dryly. “it never does”.

it isn’t hard to feel the hiss and crack of the cat o’nine tails ripping into human flesh as kiah recalls the year 1825, when a total of 10,000 lashes were meted out to 240 inmates (of roughly 350). the camp commandant and others witnessed the screaming pain to ensure there was no mercy. “It had to be correct,” kiah notes.

very little remains of the settlement. most of the buildings were made of wood. they’ve been lost to the ravages of time, scavengers and looters. only a few meter-thick sections of the penitentiary wall still stand, along with the baking ovens.

the establishment of the sarah island penal colony was based on two premises. first, it was so remote that it would be impossible to escape; second, it would earn enough money to pay for itself. the region’s tall, straight, flexible huon pine trees were highly prized by shipbuilders. but harvesting the logs and getting the timber to shipyards in hobart took a gruesome toll in lives, limbs and lumber. the treacherous one-way journey around the southern horn of tassie and through hell’s gate took eleven days in good weather.

sarah island around 1830, when it was a booming shipbuilding center with a population of nearly 600, including some families of staff and inmates.

it soon became obvious that it would be smarter to build the ships at sarah island. in 1827, when the shipyard opened, what had been a forlorn convict station became a boom town as skilled shipwrights were lured by lucrative offers of cash to man the yard.

from 1827 till it was shut down, sarah island was australia’s #1 producer of sailing brigs, turning out more than 100 seaworthy vessels.

the macquarie harbor penal station was finally scragged (put out of its misery) in 1833, not so much because it was a horrible place as that keeping it supplied was too difficult; even with convict slave labor, it was a money-loser. the prisoners were transferred to the newly opened convict colony at port arthur, just half a day’s journey from hobart, as opposed to eleven days of vomiting over the railing into storm-tossed seas on the sarah island express.

in the penal colony’s twelve year existence, (1822-33) at least 180 escape attempts were made from sarah island. most failed. one notable exception was the last one.

and therein lies a rollicking merry (and mostly true) tale of mischief and mayhem; a convict’s eye view of hardship and heroism, where underdogs rule.

when the play opens, four convicts are discussing ways to avoid a scragging (the hangman’s noose) for mutiny and piracy on the high seas. the four were among ten convicts who had commandeered the frederick, the last brig to be built at the sarah island shipyard.

the ten of ’em were among the last convicts on sarah island. they were putting the final touches on the frederick before it sailed to hobart, where it would be commissioned. instead, they overpowered their guards and commandeered the vessel. they then sailed all the way to south america, where they ditched the ship off the coast of chile and told the locals they had been shipwrecked.

their story worked, for a while, and the ten were allowed to live as free men in the chilean port of valdivia. six of them eventually hopped a lift on ships headed elsewhere before the authorities got wise and turned the remaining four (two) over to a passing british frigate. they were brought back to london, then returned to hobart for trial, where they were found guilty of piracy and mutiny, and sentenced for a scragging.

as the play begins, the four are plotting a strategy for appealing their death sentence. when they walk out on stage, who do ya think they are? it’s kiah davey, this time in convict’s garb, playing the part of the ringleader james “jimmy” porter. her partner in crime, billy shires, is our friend peta, who had been selling tickets the previous evening. that’s the cast.

the other two co-conspirators, william cheshire and charles lyon are played by unsuspecting folks plucked from the audience. in fact, all the eight or so other players are paying customers drafted into the cast.

the result is a wild and hilarious audience participation free-for-all, including a re-enactment of the mutiny, complete with gunplay and axe fights, a parrot that squawks and curses incessantly, a cat, and kiah, all the while imploring the audience to give “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to their crazy appeal to escape a scraggin’.

the argument they concocted was that the crime could not have been mutiny since the convicts weren’t actually members of the ship’s crew, and it couldn’t be piracy since the ship was not on the high seas; and, crucially, since the frederick had not yet been commissioned, it wasn’t technically a ship at all.

“It was canvas, rope, boarding and trenails, put together shipwise – yet it was not a legal ship; the seizure might have been theft, but not piracy.”[12]

so, no ship, no crime. right, sherlock?

in real life, their appeal succeeded. (thumbs up!) the judge ruled that they didn’t give a ship… or take one. so they were spared the noose.

the grand finale is a sea squall that almost sank the frederick in the wind-whipped south pacific ocean. members of the audience play the part of the weather. water squirt bottles are handed out all around, and on cue, everyone starts spraying water at perfect strangers and creating a mist in a real squirt gun rainstorm.

it’s a riot.

interestingly, jimmy porter happened to have been an educated man, and he wrote two books about the convict experience. the first was published in serial form in a hobart newspaper, and was said to have been instrumental in turning public opinion against the brutality of the penal system.

instead of hanging, the four got off with’ life in prison. a few years later, porter had his sentence reduced after saving several officers from drowning after their boat capsized. he eventually escaped again and is still absconding. posters have been printed offering a reward for information leading to his recapture.

“the ship that never was” was among 70 plays written by richard davey, kiah’s father, and co-founder of the round earth theater company, along with his wife kathi. richard played the role of jimmy porter for most of the first seven thousand or so performances. sadly, he fell ill and succumbed to cancer ten years ago, so kiah has taken up the role of jimmy as well as the role as c.e.o. of the round earth company, keeping the family tradition alive.

the story is told seven nights a week, from september to may, at the richard davey amphitheatre in strahan. if yer doin’ time in oz, it’s worth the trip.

and if you go, bring a raincoat.


  1. Al Pessin says:

    This is great, Pete. Gotta get there one of these years. All best to you and Pernille.


    1. love to see you down here, al. thanks for your kind words.


  2. Pearl says:

    This was an entertaining read Peter…Not an itinerary I would ordinarily have picked but it does sound like fun!


    1. thanks for reading, dear pearl. australia is nothing if not the unexpected.


  3. Dennis Stein says:

    Pete, As usual, a fine commentary of Oz and related islands. I regret not having visited Taz on one of my many trips to Oz but as I always say….”Maybe some day”. You certainly make it interesting and worthwhile. Take care and continue your serial from down under, I very much enjoy the installments. Dennis


    1. dennis, great to hear from you again. it’s never too late, at least as long as you’re above ground, to make another trip to the down side.i’d love to see you after what, four or five decades. when you have a chance would you DM me your email address, maybe your phone number as well.


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