A Bleak Day at Hell’s Gates, Western Tasmania

Hell's Gates, Tasmania
Hell’s Gates – a passage to Macquarie Harbour through Macquarie Heads (left) and Entrance Island (right)

Perhaps it was fitting that I visited Hell’s Gates in western Tasmania on a bleak, windswept day. If it had been sunny, with children bobbing merrily in tyre tubes and portly vacationers demolishing their ice-creams, then things might have been a bit unfair. Unfair to the horrible lives of those wayward men, here long ago, and unfair to me, who was trying to gather some semblance of this gateway to what was once “the most remote penal hellhole in the British Empire.”

Hell’s Gates, which is a shallow, notoriously dangerous channel between Macquarie Heads and Entrance Island, was so named by convicts as they believed it marked their entrance to hell. Hell being Macquarie Harbour Penal Station on Sarah Island.

Enter the savage

Undoubtedly the most sensational account of convict life on Sarah Island is that of Alexander Pearce. Pearce was an Irishmen, sentenced to Australia for seven years for stealing six pairs of shoes. He arrived in Australia in 1821 and was soon branded a troublemaker. In 1822, he was sent to Sarah Island – a place reserved for recalcitrant convicts. Here he received numerous lashes and six months in chains for offences ranging from “embezzling” chickens and ducks, being drunk and disorderly and stealing a wheelbarrow.

He also absconded several times, once for three months. However it was his escape with seven other convicts after being fed-up with the hard labour of cutting and transporting huon pine, in dreary conditions, that became legend. Upon escape, the men planned to commandeer a ship and sail to the South Pacific, however their bungled attempt forced them into the unforgiving wilderness of western Tasmania, some of the wildest and most impenetrable terrain on earth.

Hell's Gates, Tasmania
Bonnet Island lighthouse, just inside Hell’s Gates

 A desperate, loose mission

Being utterly ill-equipped for such a journey, the men, eight days in, turned to cannibalism to survive. Alexander Dalton was killed and eaten first, as he had previously volunteered as a flogger and such men were despised. Two of the party now decided to return, thinking, quite understandably, that anything was better than being eaten. However they made it back to Macquarie Harbour only to die of exhaustion.

Meanwhile, as members of the party showed signs of wear, they were killed and eaten one by one. Finally, when there were just two men left, Pearce killed his companion as he slept, eating his flesh and innards (by this stage raw). Making it to settlement, he stole from farmlands for several months before being captured and dragged back in chains to Sarah Island.

Several months later, however, Pearce escaped again. Having by now a taste for his kind, he killed and ate his sole companion and was captured 11 days after setting out. He was hung in Hobart Town jail on July 19th, 1824.

I stood on the beach, trying to picture the convict-laden ships passing through these narrow ‘hellish’ gates which stood before me. I thought about that trip in the rugged forest which began nearby. Of course, bleak weather or not, I could never really fathom the horrors of those times.

Thank f**k for that.

5 thoughts on “A Bleak Day at Hell’s Gates, Western Tasmania”

  1. Hi Andy. I went to Sarah Island on that tourist cruise in MacQuarie Harbour from Strahan – what a bleak and awful place! I could all too readily imagine what it might have been like to be forced to live there as a convict, although the reality would have been far worse than my imagination. Shudder!


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