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The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, a former British colonial penal settlement, established on Sarah Island, Macquarie Harbour in the former colony of Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania, Australia, operated between 1822 and 1833. The settlement housed mainly male convicts, with a small number of women. During its 11 years of operation, the penal colony achieved a reputation as one of the harshest penal settlements in the Australian colonies.
The penal station was established as a place of banishment within the Australian colonies. It took the worst convicts and those who had escaped from other settlements. The isolated land was ideally suited for its purpose. It was separated from the mainland by treacherous seas, surrounded by a mountainous wilderness and was hundreds of miles away from the colony's other settled areas. The only seaward access was through a treacherous narrow channel known as Hells Gates.
Strong tidal currents resulted in the deaths of many convicts before they even reached the settlement due to ships foundering in the narrow rocky channel. The surveyor who mapped Sarah Island concluded that the chances of escape were "next to impossible". Neighbouring Grummet Island, a small island to the North west, was used for solitary confinement.
Despite its isolated location, a considerable number of convicts attempted to escape from the island. Bushranger Matthew Brady was among a party that successfully escaped to Hobart in 1824 after tying up their overseer and seizing a boat. James Goodwin was pardoned after his 1828 escape and was subsequently employed to make official surveys of the wilderness he had passed through. Sarah Island's most infamous escapee was Alexander Pearce who managed to get away twice. On both occasions, he cannibalized his fellow escapees.
Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell wanted the new penal colony to be economically viable. It could then reimburse the British government for the expense of its establishment. Convicts were employed in the shipbuilding industry. For a short period, it was the largest shipbuilding operation in the Australian colonies. Chained convicts had the task of cutting down Huon pine trees and rafting the logs down the river. Eventually the heavily forested island was cleared by the convicts. A tall wall was then built along the windward side of the island to provide shelter for the shipyards from the roaring forties blowing up the harbour.
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