Most people have a borderline masochistic need for adrenaline. Jumping from planes or swimming with sharks, or anything else that makes your heart beat as if the world’s about to end.
This week’s adrenaline adventure stood in the form of a tour guide dressed in black with a $9 Bunnings lantern and a frightening disposition to colonial graveyards. Meeting at Port Macquarie’s prized statue of our first Prime Minister, we trailed through the town’s labyrinth of convict and colonial history.
A court house said to be haunted by one of the many convicts wrongly sentenced to death stands by the city centre, holding close the echoes of non-guilty pleas, mingling with the public who waited on its lawn, a collective breath held in a unanimous wish for a desperate man’s life to be cut short.
However the threads of guilt and suspense and dread hanging lavishly within the original courthouse were drowned out by the evening rehearsal of the local men’s choir. Their baritone renditions of songs by The Beatles filled the building with an aura of pride, hard work and peace, and the evolution of emotions witnessed by the court room’s walls reflect the evolution of the city.
We passed the hub of the CBD, a place which was a swamp until the convicts had to carry countless thousands of barrows and buckets filled with sand, while wearing iron cuffs which stripped the skin from their wrists and ankles.
When our tour guide paused in front of our hotel, we shared nervous glances. He delightedly told us of the murder which took place within and the ghost which now watches over people as they sleep.
Stopping at a convict-made well, we learned of a young child who vanished, only to be found three months later at the bottom of this well, which had supplied all cooking, drinking and bathing water to the townspeople. The sun dried, handmade bricks were marked with the thumbprints of the convicts who created them, as well as identifying symbols. A brick marked with a star indicated that the convict who made it would serve a life sentence and die as a prisoner.
Crossing into the colonial cemetery, we came upon an unknowable number of unmarked graves. We stood atop a forgotten individual with every step we took and learned of the conditions which stole their lives away.
Then, the death of Commandant Rowland had stirred a mixture of emotions in the
community. Fearing vandals due to the unpopularity of commandants who were often cruel or corrupt, Rowland was buried in an empty plot, and St Thomas’ Church was built up around him. Ruled by rigid class systems, box pews were erected, with the most wealthy and important people in the pews nearest to the front, nearest to God. A screen shielded the Commandant’s wife and daughters from the convicts, so as not to ‘catch’ their badness. The most privileged of the people shared their pew with a trap door, the kind depicted in story books, with a large brass handle and a heavy creak… Hiding a large grave stone, marking the resting place of Commandant Rowland. For those less privileged, we return to the largely unmarked cemetery. With autopsies less thorough and knowledge holding less depth, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to be buried when they’d sustained a severe head injury and slipped into a coma. Many would’ve shifted gently from comatose to death, but as grave robbers pried open graves, they would find the insides of a select few scratched with the scars left by the people who died somewhere between suffocation and madness.
Leaving our late night visits behind, we revisited St Thomas’ in the more serene setting of daytime. Ascending the church’s clock tower, each ladder led to a smaller
landing, a higher temperature, a steeper ladder. The original shell-speckled mortar met the work of a careful restoration, and we finally emerged above the city, saw the view the prisoners saw when they reached the same point, although now flecked with spots of age and the sprawl of growth.
*The phrase ‘saved by the bell’ stems from the graves that had bells installed, in case their occupants were not in fact dead. These bells were for the wealthiest, most privileged and perhaps most paranoid people, although in some cases they were actually put to use.