A Prison Broken Open

Seeking rest and recovery, Claudia and I have returned to the Australian winter. It’s beautiful here, the skies are blue over the morning frost. But I am reminded almost daily of Australia’s peculiar history. An imposing memorial is the ruined prison near where we stay now. It's a popular place. The carpark is full most days. Prison tourism is a thing, here in Australia.

 A wild kangaroo cropping the grass at Trial Bay Gaol. Photo by author.

A wild kangaroo cropping the grass at Trial Bay Gaol. Photo by author.

Trial Bay Gaol has thick stone walls. In Europe, there are castles on the hills. Those castles had prisons within them, dank dungeons made to terrorise the peasants into giving their grain away while their children starved. But Australia is a modern country on an ancient island, so the stone ruins are almost nothing but prisons. Many of the ‘castles’ here were penal institutions.

We are staying at a friend's place, on land close to that of my Aboriginal tribe. My clan had their territory inland from here in the river valleys.

My grandfather left there in the early 1920’s when the clan was dispossessed. He became part of the tribe's diaspora. People of our clan were put on trucks and taken to a concentration camp not far from here. That place was a called a ‘mission’ because the church was misused to make the process seem righteous. There was a concentration camp at the ruined jail near here, too. But the prisoners most recently kept there were not my countrymen. They were countrymen of my wife, Claudia.

Trial Bay Gaol was built in 1887 to house prison labour for a public works project. Later, it became a detention centre for ‘foreigners’, mainly Germans, Poles and Austro-Hungarians and British and Australians of German ancestry, during the First World War.

At the cafe adjoining the caravan park up the road, we read old newspaper clippings shellacked on the table.  As we ate a delicious lunch, Claudia and I read stories, sometimes reading between the lines, from the early old newspapers. Yesterday I visited the site and found out more about it.

 Internees cell at Trial Bay Gaol. Pic by author.

Internees cell at Trial Bay Gaol. Pic by author.

The prison was built by convict labour. Huge bricks of hand-hewn granite made walls to defy dynamite. Colonial prisoners were kept there from 1876 to 1886, working the marble-like stone in a quarry below to build a breakwater in the bay. The prison was considered progressive because inmates were permitted to learn a trade.

Nevertheless, torture and terror still occurred there. In a museum case there now, unlabelled, there is a cat-o-nine-tails—a whip of knotted ropes—which looked stained with old blood. One of the prison bosses was known as a particularly cruel man. But there was no gallows there, unlike other jails tourists can visit in Australia.

The men gaoled at Trial Bay during World War I formed a relatively prosperous minority of the over six thousand people interned as potential foreign agents. Most internees were German or German-speaking, but a couple of Buddhist monks visiting from Ceylon were also caught up in the dragnet. Over five thousand internees were kept at Holsworthy in western Sydney in much rougher conditions. The men who were taken up the coast to Trial Bay were mainly officers, diplomats, businessmen or successful tradesmen. It is most likely that they were overwhelmingly innocent of any crime.

Along with Germans living in Australia and nearby colonies, the wartime government jailed Australian-born children and grandchildren of German and Austrian migrants. Once at the prison, internees were divided by class and rank, with officers staying in wooden huts outside the prison walls. The cells the rest of the men slept in were small, dank and stagnant.

The German internees made the best of their imprisonment. Most professional or business people had an outside source of money to supplement the shilling per day prisoners were paid to carry water or source firewood. Businesses set up within the jail included a cobbler (making shoes), sausage makers, carpenters and tailors. An editor produced a weekly newspaper for internees. Amateur theatre performed weekly plays with elaborate costumes and sets, made within the jail.

 Interned German photographer  Paul Dubotzki  (upper left) with fellow prisoners in 1915 at the Torrens Island camp, SA, before being sent to Trial Bay Gaol.

Interned German photographer Paul Dubotzki (upper left) with fellow prisoners in 1915 at the Torrens Island camp, SA, before being sent to Trial Bay Gaol.

Bavarian Paul Dubotzki was an expedition photographer in German New Guinea when the war broke out. Imprisoned in Australia, and eventually sent to Trial Bay prison, he ran a photographic studio in the camp. His photographs of the prisoners and their lives in the camps are compelling, giving great insight into the men’s lives. Dubotzki photographs were kept safely by his daughters in a German village for nearly ninety years before being shared with a researcher from Australia in 2007.

Trial Bay is a great spot for a photographer. The ruins of the jail occupy a hill with a marvellous vista. But such places were chosen to narrow the avenue of egress. Waste from the jail poured into the ocean directly, attracting baitfish and sharks into the bay. The pounding of the waves on the rocks below, so soothing to my ears, must have become horrible to some of the men imprisoned there.

At least when the Germans were there, they were not locked into the cells. Most shared a small, dark cell with another. Cell doors may have been left open as a result of the work of the imprisoned camp doctor, Dr Max Herz. A strong advocate for the internees, he gained permission for them to use a fenced section of the land and sea near the jail. The men washed in the ocean. Freshwater was in short supply. Each was given a bucket of it per day.

 Rotted iron bars from the jail's dining hall. Author photo.

Rotted iron bars from the jail's dining hall. Author photo.

The prisoners were not soldiers and were not people used to taking commands. Despite the community that the men built there, relations between guards and prisoners remained tense. The internees were prone to protest. They formed a committee to help gain control of their conditions. In the early years at the camp, they ate well, supplementing their rations with jail-grown vegetables and fresh fish. The German-born baker in the camp was so good that the local bread shop commissioned him to bake their bread rolls.

In spite of their moments of joy in life, the internees faced boredom, isolation and powerlessness. Separation from loved ones and the loss of self-determination caused grief. Despair lurked.

Sometimes the fact that they had become prisoners was emphasised. When the men were brought to the prison they were marched there for eight kilometres. Local people came out to watch them marched by. The internees’ personal belongings were transported by car. On arrival at the jail, the men found that their cases had been rifled through. Valuables like watches, pens, tools and shaving sets had been stolen.

In a similar vein, at the end of the war, the men were moved back to Holsworthy, where they were kept into 1919. The Holsworthy camp suffered in the influenza pandemic. Over six thousand, that is, all but very few, of the internees were eventually deported. Deportation of fathers, husbands and colleagues causing ongoing grief and difficulty for their Australian families and friends.

 'The Sheep Pen'--a wire cage in which Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Poles and Australians of German ancestry were kept for 30 days at the Torrens Island camp. Photo by  Paul Dubotzki .

'The Sheep Pen'--a wire cage in which Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Poles and Australians of German ancestry were kept for 30 days at the Torrens Island camp. Photo by Paul Dubotzki.

Of the thousands of people Australia interned during World War I, four and a half thousand were Germans or British citizens of German descent who were residents.

During World War II Japanese, German and Italian residents were imprisoned. At its peak in 1942, Australia had over 12,000 people (including prisoners taken overseas) in prison camps.

This history can help us understand Australia's high rates of incarceration today. Born as a prison about 240 years ago, stolen from the island's Original people, the Australian nation today has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world for Indigenous people.

The rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal women has increased by sixty per cent in the past ten years. Overwhelmingly, people--especially Indigenous women--are locked up for crimes of poverty and poor education: non-payment of fines, drug use, prostitution or assault in the context of domestic violence. There should be other ways of helping people than to further traumatise them.

Not far from here, the government has plans to build a new prison to accommodate and regiment more homeless, disorientated, mentally ill and misbehaving people.

 Blue sky through the roof of the prison. Author photo.

Blue sky through the roof of the prison. Author photo.

The old ruined jail at Trial Bay has the roof removed. The iron window bars are rotted. Some of the cell doors are taken off.  Kangaroos graze nibble the prison lawns. You can see whales blow and breach from the car park. Some of the long-held dreams of Trial Bay Gaol’s prisoners came true. May their spirits fly free.