|View from the
Commissariat Store to the Asst.
Superintendant's Quarters (1849)
Lonely and historically significant island
off the east coast.
Maria Island is steeped in history. This wild
and rugged island which is over 20 km long and
13 km wide is characterised by sheer cliffs
tumbling into the sea, jagged rocky outcrops
(Mount Maria rises to 710 m and 'the Bishop and
Clerk' reaches 915 m), extensive fossil deposits
and interesting ruins of the nineteenth century
The first European to sight Maria Island was
Abel Tasman in December 1642. It was Tasman who,
having named the main island after Anthony Van
Diemen, the Governor-in-Chief of the Dutch East
India Company in Batavia, named this small east
coast island, Maria, after the
The first Englishman to land on the island
was Captain John Cox who arrived in 1789,
anchored at Shoal Bay, and made contact with the
local Aborigines. Three years later the French
explorer, Nicholas Baudin, spent five days
investigating the island. The diversity of these
early explorers is summed up by the variety of
names given to the coastline - everything from
Ile du Nord to Chinaman's Bay, Mistaken Cape and
The island has experienced four distinct
periods of European settlement. The first
'settlers' were whalers and sealers who lived a
hard and temporary life on the island in the
early nineteenth century. They viciously
exploited the local Aborigines while plundered
the local seal population.
In 1825 the sealers gave way to a penal
colony (the second to be established in Van
Diemen's Land) established by Governor George
Arthur to ease the ever-increasing pressure on
Arthur sent 50 convicts, accompanied by a
superintendent and a small party of soldiers, to
the island. Although their stay was relatively
short (the colony closed in 1832 after the
larger prison at Port Arthur was established)
they built a number of buildings of which only
the Commissariat Store and the prisoner's
barracks, known as the Penitentiary, still
stand. Located at Darlington they were built of
local stones and bricks. Both buildings have a
solidity which makes them look as though they
will survive for another thousand years.
At this time the island was leased to Charles
Seal but, when the number of convicts arriving
in Van Diemen's Land dramatically increased in
the early 1840s, Lieutenant-Governor Franklin
repaired the original buildings and reopened the
island as a penal colony.
The second period of convict settlement
started in 1842 and it was during this period
that the island's population expanded
dramatically. A second convict station was
established at Point Lesueur, over 800 convicts
arrived on the island, and an extensive building
program was commenced.
Again the settlement was short-lived. It was
abandoned for the last time in 1851 and a few
farmers arrived to take advantage of the good
sheep pastures and the mild climate.
Palace and Penitentiary
In 1884 Maria Island began a new phase in its
history when an Italian silk merchant, Diego
Bernacchi, leased the entire island. Bernacchi
was a dreamer who, attracted by the mild climate
and good soils, decided to turn Maria Island
into a Mediterranean paradise. He planted 50 000
vines (one of his wines came third in the 1888
Melbourne Centennial Exhibition) and built a
30-room Grand Hotel and Coffee Palace.
So enthusiastic was Bernacchi that he
attracted a State School (now used as the
Ranger's office), general store, butcher and
baker to the island. The project failed and
Bernacchi abandoned the island around 1895.
Undeterred he returned in 1920 to build a pier
and railway line to exploit the island's
deposits of cement.
Like every other activity on the island, the
cement works was short-lived. By 1930 the cement
works lay silent and the farmers had, once
again, quietly assumed economic preeminence. In
1972 the whole island became a National Park.
Maria Island is located 88 km north-east of
Hobart via the Tasman Highway. Access to the
island is gained by travelling 7 km north of
Orford to the Eastcoaster Resort.
Things to see:
A ferry runs from Triabunna at 9.30 a.m. seven
days a week from 1 September to Easter. It
returns from Maria Island at 4.30 p.m. Current
cost $25 for adults return, $12 for children
under 15 and bicycles $2.00. For more
information contact 0427 100 104.
rocks, a major attraction on Maria
Bushwalking and Exploring
Today the island's main inhabitants are
enthusiastic bushwalkers and a diversity of
wildlife including the Forester kangaroo (an
introduced species), Bennets and Rufous wallaby,
Cape Barren geese, and a large number of
The impact of settlement and industry has
virtually disappeared from the island. Many of
the convict buildings, as well as the ill-fated
Grand Hotel, have been dismantled.
In 1992 the Sydney Morning Herald travel
writer Monique Farmer observed that: 'The 20th
century has barely touched the island. The only
vehicles belong to the rangers. There are no
shops, few modern conveniences. Camping
facilities are basic. There are no showers or
hot water. There are a few camping sites to
choose from, or people can stay in the old
prisoner's barracks, The Penitentiary. Each
cabin contains bunks with mattresses and a
wooden stove for heating.
rocks, a major attraction on Maria
'Although there is a barbecue area, campers
are advised to bring their own portable stoves.
Campers explore the island on foot or bicycle.
The main activities are bushwalking, swimming
and, for the more adventurous, diving and rock
climbing. Despite all this, or perhaps because
of it, Maria Island generally has 120 to 200
campers a night over the summer and Easter