Tied helplessly to a wooden stake, he waited. His friend readied, reluctantly preparing to unleash at full force.
Slowly, methodically, the man received his lashes. Each rough length of the cat-o'-nine-tails beating unimaginably hard against the man's soft skin. The knots in each length of rope effortlessly tearing away strips of flesh, turning the rope red. If his mate refused to participate, the men were forced to simply exchange places.
Welcome to St Helena Island.
Such was the punishment for even the mildest form of dissent where lashings were dealt not by wardens but by other prisoners. To ensure full force was used by reluctant inmates, they were threatened with having any chance of a reduced sentence dashed. When the lashings were done, the doctor would literally pour salt into the wound to assist healing.
Thankfully, times have changed. St Helena Island was a prison island, or perhaps more eloquently, a penal settlement, created in 1867 to solve the over-crowding problem in Queensland prisons. Some may argue that the ugly treatment of prisoners was justified for here resided Queensland's worst criminals. By 1891 there were 17 murderers, 27 men convicted of manslaughter, 26 perpetrators of stabbings and shootings, and countless individuals responsible for assaults, rapes and similar violent crimes. Located just a few kilometres east of the mouth of the Brisbane River, St Helena went on to become the most successful prison in the state. Success came not just in the low number of successful escapes (just one in its 65 years) but in the island's ability to turn a profit.
St Helena Island was originally intended as a quarantine station. In 1866, about 30 prisoners from Brisbane's gaol at Petrie Terrace were put to work on the island sinking wells, clearing scrub, quarrying stone, and building accommodation for the new station. However, worsening conditions at the Petrie Terrace gaol prompted the government to scrap their plans and the prisoners were ordered to build a gaol on the island instead.
Inmates worked 14.5 hour days in carpentry, boot-making, tailoring, tinsmith, saddle-making, bread-making, butchery and farming. Incredibly, the settlement not only became self-sufficient, but exported goods back to the mainland. Maize, potatoes, lucerne and other vegetables thrived in the rich volcanic soil. By 1880 the sugar mill crushed over 75 tons a year of locally grown sugar. Costing 4,000 pounds to establish, the crop went on to return 15,000 pounds a year to become Queensland's most lucrative prison.
It was also the most gruesome. Cells measuring three metres squared housed 12 inmates each with a single bucket for a toilet. Thick still air provided perfect conditions for mosquitoes. This was a silent prison where uttering a single word could land you in solitary confinement tightly wrapped in a straight jacket with a gag in your throat until you were broken. One prisoner lived like this for 28 days. Other forms of punishment included shot drill and, of course, lashings with the famous cat-o'-nine-tails.
Jeff Simpkins was born in England but moved out to Australia in 1957 when he was ten. There is no man better suited to providing an entertaining historical account of the island.
During school he always wanted to be a teacher, but ended up answering an ad and becoming a radiographer instead. This soon bored him and he set himself back on the path he originally intended, teaching children with special needs. He built and maintained boats with the kids at Darling Point Special School on Brisbane's bayside, which included the construction of a 44-passenger commercial vessel. Jeff recalls: "using that vessel we ran programs for primary school students on the bay and the river using our special school students as crew on the boat. So, we were integrating them with the primary kids."
Education Queensland soon caught on and in the mid 80s offered Jeff a committee position to look at ways of utilising St Helena Island for education purposes, where Jeff had already taken students since 1977. While he was training guides for the island, a separate tourist venture was already operating. When Jeff retired from teaching in 2002, he bought that tourist business with his wife, Gay, who was also a special school teacher. "We really developed the dramatisation of the tours... from a teacher's viewpoint. To raise the tours to a higher level to service schools."
Teaching clearly runs in the family, with his daughter and her husband operating a tutoring company where Jeff still teaches senior high school mathematics. Gay still tutors primary school children and their son, Zachary, assists in the tour business.
The prison on St Helena officially closed in 1932. Because the island suffered intensive agricultural activities, over-use of ground waters, rogue flora and feral fauna, it has since been gazetted as a National Park and Queensland's first Historic Area. It also now sits in the Moreton Bay Marine Park surrounded by a one kilometre green zone where fishing is prohibited.
The day tours comprise two professional actors, while the night show has developed into a full theatre production with lighting, sound and a professional cast of five. The astoundingly knowledgeable guides possess an uncanny ability to hold your attention, wittily bouncing off each other and providing a perfect blend of comedy and information. Discovering the origin of the names of many familiar Brisbane buildings and streets is also fascinating stuff.
While the tours were originally intended for school students, they're now open to the wider public and are a popular tourist attraction. But Jeff has not rested on his laurels. As well as St Helena Island, he has continued to develop new programs and school tours of other sites of historical significance including Moreton Bay, Stradbroke Island, Brisbane River and Fort Lytton.
As well as the many tours, the boat is also available for private charter.
Cat O' Nine Tails Cruises: www.sthelenaisland.com.au
This article was originally written for the Outback City Express newspaper Aug - Oct 2013 edition.
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