Before the world went crazy and we were all sequestered in our own homes I took three different tours of Fremantle Prison which is situated near Perth in Western Australia. My mind keeps going back to those tiny cells, smaller than our six-meter bus Lil’ Beaut that we live in. Not only were the cells smaller, but there was no running water, no bed, no chair. There was just a bucket to defecate in and a blanket for sleeping.
Maybe you are one of the individuals staying home for the safety of your friends and family to help flatten the curve. Maybe you are there for your own health and safety. Even though you know you are doing the right thing it can still feel isolating and can make many feel a bit stir crazy.
It could be worse. You could be in solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison.
I stepped into a tiny room, smaller than many storage closets. The limestone walls were thick blocking out all sound from the outside world. I turned and watched as the heavy wooden doors with dimpled metal plates slammed in front of me.
A second later I heard another rumble as the outer door was closed and a large metal clang sealed me inside. I stood there in silence cut off from the outside world.
Then the lights went out and the airtight room was plunged into darkness. It was a darkness that closed its obsidian arms around the soul whispering the fear of isolation and despair.
I’ve been in absolute darkness before in caves and in mines. I even spent a cloudy moonless night tracking a deer in the forest. But always in that darkness, there were small movements of air or a bug scurrying across a leaf. The smell of damp earth was grounding.
Here in this tiny cell, the darkness swallowed all movement. It was a hungry darkness stealing the sense of sight and sound. Its clutches were disorienting. Only the smell of the excrement bucket in the corner remained. There would be no human contact for days, maybe even weeks, nothing moved. It was as if the world was upside down. Oxygen and the rest of humanity abandons the soul here.
I was in a solitary confinement cell located in the primary maximum security prison of Western Australia, at least it was when it was in operation. It ceased being a prison in 1991 and opened a year later to tourism. Now, it is one of the more popular tourist destinations in the area.
The reenactment in solitary confinement cell that I participated in was only ten seconds. Afterward, the door reopened and the lights came back on. I tried to make the most of those 10 seconds stretching my imagination to feel what it might have been like to remain in that room for 24 hours, for a week, a few weeks or even six months. Thankfully the recreation I experienced did not include the excrement bucket.
Personally I find utter darkness peaceful when I want to relax or sleep, but I have never spent a full 24 hours in darkness as thick as ink with no air movement. Nor have I spent days in this condition with the minimum of bread and water for survival.
The door on these cells only opened to move prisoners to their night cells which were exactly the same. The movement was necessary to keep prisoners from suffocating in the airtight rooms. I imagine that it could feel like a slow death, a total abandonment of life. It was a darkness and a stillness that could even steal the mind.
Our tour guide said that some who went into these dark rooms never truly came out. Some were released only to spend the rest of their lives in the psychiatric ward.
After walking down a long corridor we took a right and two large heavy wooden doors were unlocked and opened. When I entered I felt fear and dread swirl around me, or was it just my imagination? Either way, I could taste the copper tones of adrenalin.
It was a small room with a platform in the center. Above the central platform hung a noose, solid and unmoving as if it were a testament to those who passed through here never to move again. In its quiet stance, it spoke of crimes and punishment. Guilt and innocence have stood here and breathed their last breath.
“Forty-three men and one woman were hung here,” said James, our guide.
“The woman who was hung here was an evil, adulterous woman who killed her three stepchildren by pouring hydrochloric acid down their throats,” he added with derision.
One woman hung
On my next tour, the last of three different tours I took that day, another guide told us the other side of the story of this lone woman who was hung.
Martha Rendell was living with Thomas Nicholls Morris who was separated from his wife. Her step-children came down with diphtheria. In 1907 when this occurred, pharmacists prescribed spirits of salts (hydrochloric acid) be swabbed on the throat to cure the lethal infection. The children seemed to get better after she applied the prescribed substance but sadly passed a few months after their bouts with the deadly ailment.
There was a fourth child who survived and he harbored a long time grudge against his stepmother. He ran to a neighbor to tell tales of abuse, none of which were ever proven. An autopsy of the three deceased children found no evidence of foul play to convict Martha.
When the media got word of the fourth child’s accusations they smeared her name in the papers as a loose woman and an evil stepmother. Who doesn’t love an evil stepmother fairy tale?
Martha Rendell maintained her claim of innocence till death. Even her guards cried at her hanging.
We may never know if she was guilty or innocent. There is always more to a story.
Colonizing Western Australia
Perth, the capital of Western Australia, was founded in 1829 largely to establish British ownership before the French claimed it, but they needed more manpower for infrastructure and services to create an establishment.
Perth is one of the most isolated cities in the world. It is located on the coast of Western Australia. With the Indian Ocean to the west and vast deserts to the north and east, it is far from everywhere else. The closest city is Adelaide in South Australia 2,700 KM ( 1,700 miles) away. That is the distance from Pensacola FL to Phoenix AZ. A few small settlements exist below Perth now, but beyond that the next stop is Antarctica.
At the time that Perth was founded, overland travel was difficult and even life-threatening. Air travel was not even in existence yet. Perth probably felt like the end of the world, not to be confused with the edge of the world in Tasmania and the end of the world in Ushuaia. On a round globe who is to say? It’s all about how a place feels.
The colony in Western Australi near modern-day Perth was failing. They needed more people who could do manual labor so they agreed to be a penal colony on three conditions. The colony requested the ships of prisoners not to include female convicts, political prisoners, or convicts convicted of serious crimes.
Britain agreed to send prisoners in 1840 and sent a letter informing the officials in the Swan River Colony that 75 men were on their way. Unfortunately, the ship of prisoners arrived in Perth before the letter did. These first 75 convicts had to build the Fremantle prison that they would then be incarcerated in.
Britain stuck to the conditions for about two years but in 1868, 62 Irish political prisoners were sent to Western Australia. They ended up executing the only successful prison outbreak in Fremantle Prison. Gotta love those Irish. The only deal they didn’t break was the “no women” policy.
Culture after Prison
I often wonder about the impact this had on Australian culture, building a settlement from convicts. But not everyone in prison was there because of crimes against humanity. Many were there just because they were unwanted in society. They were the ones who did not abide by the rules, the ones who did not follow the norm, the ones who strayed from what society defined as proper.
Aren’t the unwanted of one decade sometimes the ones who move us forward as a society in the next. Haven’t so many game-changers in history been outcasts during their time? Galileo, mocked for his views on the solar system and science, was deemed a heretic and put on house arrest the rest of his life. Rosa Parks who, against all pressure around her, refused to give up her seat on a bus and changed history for the better. She fought the norm of the time. We need those people to question what everyone accepts as truth.
Society today in Australia
I don’t claim to know any of the why’s and wherefores of how the past connects to the present. But I can say that I love the current culture here. Many of the folk here seem toughened to disasters and yet laid back and easy going. Maybe they just understand what is most important and that the little things should be more light-hearted.
During this current world crisis, there are those who horde toilet paper and others who tell everyone who isn’t from their neighborhood to “go home.” There are those who look down on others and are selfish. These types of people are in every country across the world, but most of the hate that I’ve seen is online and people generally misbehave more online.
In-person, Australians seem to have a heart of gold. There are nomads and backpackers stranded across the world, unable to get home and struggling to find a place to stay where they are. If it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers here in Australia we would not have a place to be right now.
Currently, we have parked Lil’ Beaut in the backyard of someone we only just met recently. Toby graciously offered us the use of his property and we truly feel blessed to have a place we know we can stay put and wait this thing out. We have privacy, a great view, and awesome neighbors (Toby’s family).
A door of opportunity exists right now for everyone. It’s an opportunity to be kind, to be understanding and to be compassionate to others who are feeling fear, to those who are stranded and to those who are grieving.