by David Andrew Roberts,
David Andrew Roberts is Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of New England (UNE)
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Executive summary

  • This article considers the Australian Federal Government’s recent series nomination of Australian convict sites for World Heritage listing.
  • It applauds the Nomination as a worthy initiative, but notices some shortcomings in the UNESCO criteria that potentially limit the representation of Australian convict history through World Heritage listing.
  • It notes significant variations between the original (1995) short-list of sites, the ‘Tentative List’ (2000) submitted to UNESCO and the final Nomination (2008), as the selection of sites for inclusion was adjusted to best meet UNESCO criteria.
  • While the justification of the significance of the nominated sites is compelling, the actual choice of sites rests largely on the extent to which they have survived physically, rather than on their being truly characteristic of the key elements of Australia’s convict past.
  • The chosen sites may, in fact, misleadingly suggest a history that was confined to certain demarcated locations, and, moreover, one that was dominated by incarceration and exemplary punishment.
  • While it is acknowledged that these particular sites are best fitted to UNESCO’s narrow prescriptions, this article nonetheless concludes that such criteria should not diminish the appreciation of other, lesser-known convict sites. Instead, closer attention should be drawn to those more fragile sites that are in more urgent need of protection.

The federal government’s recent nomination of eleven ‘Convict Sites’ for World Heritage listing is a popular and welcome initiative. The series nomination addresses a conspicuous disparity in Australia’s World Heritage profile, which to date contains only one item representing the nation’s European heritage (the Sydney Opera House, listed in 2007). Filling that gap with convict sites seems all the more remarkable given the thorny role of convict heritage in the development of Australian culture and identity over the last two hundred years.

The eleven sites nominated for World Heritage listing are:

  • Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (Norfolk Island)
  • Old Government House and Domain (NSW)
  • Hyde Park Barracks (NSW)
  • Cockatoo Island (NSW)
  • Old Great North Road (NSW)
  • Brickendon-Woolmers Estates (Tas)
  • Darlington Probation Station (Tas)
  • Cascades Female Factory (Tas)
  • Port Arthur Historic Site (Tas)
  • Coal Mines Historic Site (Tas)
  • Fremantle Prison (WA)

But, while we await the decision of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) expected later this year, it seems worth reflecting on some aspects of the nomination process, and on the choice of sites singled out as ‘the most representative’ or ‘pre-eminent’ of the roughly 3,000 known historic sites associated with Australia’s convict past.

The chosen eleven are put forward as being of exceptional and universal value as monuments to the global forced migration of convicts, and testaments to the evolving ideas and practices of punishment and reform during the modern era. But, more importantly, they are the ones best adapted to the stringent Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention and Criteria of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which require cultural sites to contain substantial physical fabric. In these terms, the nominated convict sites are exceptional because they are anomalous. Some questions, therefore, might be posed as to how well they represent Australia’s convict history.

*       *        *

The submission of Australian convict sites for World Heritage listing originated in the early-1990s, when the then Department of Environment, Sport and Territories commissioned Michael Pearson and Duncan Marshall to assess the various known sites against World Heritage criteria. That report, completed in 1995, provided an itemised list of around 200 ‘Convict places’, with comments on the condition and ‘special features’ of each. From these a shortlist of eight sites was recommended on account of ‘their authenticity and degree of protective management’ to be worthy of consideration for inclusion in a series-nomination for World Heritage listing.

The eight sites shortlisted in 1995 were:

  • Kingston and Arthur’s Vale (Norfolk Island)
  • Port Arthur (Tas)
  • Fremantle Prison (WA)
  • Hyde Park Barracks (NSW)
  • First Government House Site (NSW)
  • Ross Probation Station (Tas)
  • Great North Road (NSW)
  • Cockatoo Island Convict Station (NSW)

The Pearson and Marshall report was particularly useful in placing Australian convict history in its international context, the global perspective being so fundamental to the case for World Heritage listing. The report was less successful, perhaps, in its inventory of ancillary convict sites, overlooking thousands of known places and under-valuing many of those that were included.

Two sites, Norfolk Island and Cockatoo Island, had to be omitted, owing in the first case to local opposition and subsequent problems in securing agreement between the Australian and Norfolk Island governments, and in the second to concerns over the lack of existing protection planning.

Also, Port Arthur and the Coal Mines Historic Site, which Pearson and Marshall initially coupled, were now listed separately. They are discrete sites, twenty-five kilometers apart, although historically connected. In 1995, the Coal Mines site was under the management of National Parks and Wildlife, but since January 2005 it has been the statutory responsibility of the Port Arthur Historical Site Management Authority.

The ‘Tentative List’ in 2000 also added the Darlington Probation Station on Maria Island. It had not been shortlisted in 1995, the condition of its structures then being ‘unknown’. It was later included as a consummate and largely intact example of a convict probation station, with more recent investigations informing its appearance on the National Heritage List and its inclusion in the final series nomination for World Heritage listing.

A number of further changes, however, were made leading up to the 2008 Nomination. These changes may be problematical, as a strict interpretation of UNESCO’s operating guidelines might prevent the consideration of items not formally presented in the Tentative List.
Norfolk Island and Cockatoo Island reappeared in the 2008 Nomination, once bilateral agreements had been reached concerning Norfolk Island, and after Cockatoo Island had been brought under the necessary level of conservation planning and protection.
The First Government House Site (NSW) in the Sydney CBD, an important archeological site with no extant structures, was discarded in favour of the Old Government House at Parramatta. The latter, initially overlooked, represents much the same themes as the First Government House but contains several key buildings in excellent condition, including the elegant two-story, Georgian-style House itself, as well as extensive archaeological remains, located within the historic landscape setting of the Domain.

Another important addition, indeed the very last of the items to be added to the Nomination (in January 2007), the privately-owned Brickendon-Woolmers Estates at Longford (northern Tasmania) had not rated a mention in the Pearson and Marshall report, and were not on the ‘Tentative List’. But now they are instrumental to the Nomination as an exemplar of the convict assignment system, with the appropriate management and conservation policies having been formalised in 2007-08.

The most notable change was the late omission of the Ross Probation Station in the Tasmanian midlands, which is replaced in the final 2008 Nomination by the Cascade Female Factory in South Hobart. The Cascades site, remarkable for its associations with the confinement and punishment of convict women, was not on the Register of the National Estate at the time of the 1995 Pearson and Marshall Report, and had not received the same degree of historical attention and conservation management afforded to Ross. Yet, after several years of extensive research, and the acquisition of various allotments with state and private funds, the Cascades prevailed. The result would have pleased the late Kay Daniels, who thought the initial proposal for World Heritage listing blandly emphasised the incarceration of men and threatened to perpetuate convict women as ‘marginal figures’.

*       *        *

The final eleven were singled out in the Nomination as ‘the most representative’ or ‘pre-eminent’ of an estimated 3,000 other sites, on the grounds that they provide ‘a complete representation of all the significant elements’ of Australian convictism, including penal stations, gang labour, assignment, female factories and the Tasmanian probation system. Their importance is skillfully woven into a broader argument for the universal significance of Australia’s convict history.

But these arguments, although coherent and compelling, are also somewhat rhetorical, or at least seem less persuasively applied to some of the chosen sites. Ultimately, the sites are ‘pre-eminent’ chiefly in the extent to which they have survived physically. Their thematic and global significance, no matter how artfully construed, is largely dependent on the fact that that they contain substantial remnants and ruins. That is, they maintain high degrees of ‘integrity’, ‘authenticity’ and strong ‘elements of wholeness and intactness’, as demanded by UNESCO.

In short, the big eleven are pre-eminent because they have survived largely intact, to the extent that they seem sealed in time. They are places of the past, ostensibly frozen in the present, an effect deliberately produced in some cases by curatorial ‘Reconstruction’ (or the removal of evidence of subsequent reuse), winding back the clock, as it were, to supposedly enhance a site’s authenticity. As such, the nominated convict sites are as much testaments to the times of their construction and use, as to the combination of accident and wisdom that allowed their preservation.

Without denying the obvious and extraordinary value of these sites, we might nonetheless question the effects of their preservation and perceived primacy, in terms of the possible meanings they communicate in the present. Although they confront us with immediate and integral evidence of the convict system, evoking ‘a strong sense of place and character’, they may also deceive us on many levels.

First, although the Nomination describes Australia’s convict history as internationally unique in the extent to which forced migrants made ‘a major contribution to European settlement and development of a continent that later became a nation’, the point does not seem amply illustrated in some of these sites. Rather, many of them suggest a history that occurred only at certain demarcated, secluded spots, rather than a history that laid the foundations for European economy and society in a more constitutive and pervasive sense.

The effect is less obvious with some of the nominated sites. The Cascade Female Factory, Fremantle Prison and Hyde Park barracks squat amidst evolving urban landscapes. Parts of the Great North Road remain in use, and the Brickendon-Woolmers Estates continue to operate as working farms.

But other sites, Norfolk Island and Port Arthur particularly, which are lauded in the Nomination for their ‘landscape settings that have changed little since the convict era’, appear as secluded and momentary products of the convict era. They seem somehow dislocated and disembodied, discrete and detached both temporally and spatially, and thus far and safely removed from our current realities.

Obviously it is easier to imagine and insinuate the connections between the convict era and contemporary Australia than it is to locate and observe them physically. Perhaps we would find better evidence of such trajectories in convict sites that have been significantly reused and redeveloped – or in places such as Port Macquarie or Newcastle, where convict settlements were leveled and overlaid by urban and industrial development, giving way to modern cities. Of course, such cases necessarily involve a diminishing of ‘integrity’ and ‘authenticity’, and so are unsuited to the requirements of World Heritage listing.
Moreover, while the Nomination claims to have covered ‘all the significant elements’ of Australia’s convict system, the chosen sites are in fact heavily weighted towards the theme of incarceration. Notwithstanding the variety of penal and social policies represented, and the different populations they housed at different times, the chosen sites are mostly monuments of confinement, and especially evocative of cruelty and injustice.

A key exception is the Old Great North Road, though it also embodies the theme of exemplary punishment which, as most historians agree, was a marginal experience. The Brickendon-Woolmers Estates, although they impressively evoke the village-like atmosphere of the farming/homestead, hardly capture the more common, even defining, experience of convicts in private assignment – that of stockmen lodged in makeshift bark huts on the fringes of the pastoral frontier – an important element of that by its nature did not bequeath substantial fabric.

The enormous importance of carceral institutions to the administration and experience of the convict system cannot be underestimated, but they can obscure the fact that Australia was quintessentially an ‘open gaol’. The defining feature of the convict system was that prisoners generally were not institutionalised, but rather integrated into the social and economic structures of colonial society.

As Denis Gojack has argued persuasively, the sites of convict heritage that have hitherto tended to draw the attention of scholars and heritage practitioners (especially penal institutions and public works sites) offer only a very partial picture of the extent to which convicts were woven into the socio-economic fabric of early colonial Australia.
The special significance accorded to these sites has always skewered popular perceptions of the convict past. Their survival and prominence may mislead us to overstate their significance. Really, they are places that, on account of their particular function, were necessarily solid and substantial and thus more likely to have survived physically.

*          *

None of this suggests that the eleven nominated convict sites are unworthy of World Heritage listing. Certainly they have been made to appear amenable to UNESCO’s guidelines, and a successful listing would seem a due acknowledgment of both the potency of those particular places and the international importance of Australia’s convict history.
UNESCO’s narrow prescriptions for assessing heritage value, however, do not entirely speak for what is significant or instructive on a national or local level, or even for what is internationally significant but less tangible or intact in a physical sense. The advanced recognition and iconic status afforded to the pre-eminent eleven ought not to diminish the acknowledgement and appreciation of other, lesser-known convict sites.
Whatever the outcome of the Nomination, and whatever purposes it may serve, it is to be hoped that we will come to better appreciate the broader and varied national map of Australian convict history sites, including those many sites that are more fragile, subtle, and in urgent need of interpretation and protection.

Further Reading

Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Nomination, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Canberra, 2008.
M. Pearson and D. Marshall, ‘Study of World Heritage Values Convict Places’, unpublished report, Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra, 1995.
M. Pearson, ‘Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Nomination’, Historic Environment, Vol. 14, No. 5, 2000, pp. 66-9.
UNESCO Tentative Lists, ‘Australian Convict Sites’, 16 June 2000
‘Doubt over Australian bid for UN heritage listings’, Australian, 28 January 2009.
D. Gojak, ‘Convict archaeology in New South Wales: An overview of the investigation, analysis and conservation of convict heritage sites’, Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 19, 2001, pp. 73-83.

Citation: David Andrew Roberts, Precious but Partial? Some Comments on the Nomination of Australian Convict Sites for World Heritage Listing. Australian Policy and History. May 2010.


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