Peering into Sydney's past at Hyde Park Barracks

A sunny day in Sydney has a way of distracting visitors from the city's dark beginnings. But if you're lucky enough to spend a little time in New South Wales' dazzling capital, I'd urge you to explore a couple of sites paying tribute to its history: in particular, visit Hyde Park Barracks.

Sailing past the iconic Sydney Opera House on the way to Manly. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Visiting Australia's convict sites elicits complex emotions. It would be impossible not to sympathise with the harrowing conditions suffered by convicts transported from the British Isles and then enslaved. However, there are flashes of hope in the stories of those who finished their terms (or escaped) and then began new lives.

The red-brick exterior of Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page. 
Hyde Park Barracks was built in 1819 to house convict men and boys. Thirty years later it would also be the first stop for women immigrants fresh on Australia's shores. It later went through various incarnations -- a shelter for homeless women, even office space -- but is now dedicated to the history of the convicts who passed through.

Traces of barracks' original signs and papers remain, despite repeated attempts to give the building a makeover.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
Convict labour was backbreaking, and punishments for even minor infractions were grim. Being flogged until you bled with a cat o' nine tails, or flung into solitary confinement, was a lucky escape. Something as serious as trying to escape your assigned labour would land you in painfully heavy leg-irons for months on end. Worse still, you could be shipped to the notorious Port Arthur.

Inmates slept mere inches from each other in rough hammocks.
Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
But amid the miserable grind of life at Hyde Park Barracks, ingenuity still thrived. Convicts carved dice and game pieces out of bone, sheltered from the sun under hand-woven cabbage-leaf hats, and fashioned gambling tokens out of wood. Even in a place that saw as much pain as Hyde Park Barracks, there were glimmers of joy and hope.

Find it: Hyde Park Barracks Museum, Macquarie Street, NSW 2000 Australia
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