Lying about five kilometers from the mouth of the Brisbane River and a 30-minute boat ride from the bayside suburb of Manly, St. Helena Island is a monument and memorial to Brisbane’s checkered history. Known as Noogoon by the original Quandamooka people for thousands of years, it rose to prominence as an infamous high-security prison that operated from 1867 to 1933.
The seemingly tall tale of St Helena’s naming begins with an Aboriginal warrior named Eulope. Nicknamed “Napoleon” by the British due to his diminutive stature, he was accused of liberating an axe from settlers and exiled to what was then known as Green Island Two in 1827. The resourceful Eulope constructed a canoe within three days and escaped back to the mainland.
The legend of his exile and escape spread throughout the colony. While the real Napoleon Bonaparte endured exile on a very different Saint Helena Island, his namesake’s tale ensured Brisbane’s prison island later became known as St. Helena as well.
Like the notorious Alcatraz, St. Helena Prison was meant to hold the worst of the worst offenders on a spit of land that sat within escape-proof, shark-infested waters. With the use of the incarcerated population’s forced labor, the prison flourished. Profitable enterprises included a sugar refinery, brickwork, and self-sustaining agriculture. St. Helena was regarded as the model prison of its time.
But that doesn’t mean life was easy for its residents. Floggings were commonplace, as were torturous episodes of sensory deprivation in solitary confinement. Aboriginal prisoners in particular were routinely segregated and endured an existence of perpetual mistreatment.
Today, there’s little left of the prisoner-constructed buildings. Made mainly from cay stone collected from the surrounding shallows of Moreton Bay, the remaining ruins are a stark but darkly beautiful reminder of the past. The stockade is the most prominent and photographed but the poignant unmarked graves of the prison cemetery and remnants of colonial industry also offer an insight into the past.
Now a national park, St. Helena is a compelling rather than leisurely day trip from Brisbane. The stories of prisoner life abound and captivate in guided tours, as does the brutalist architecture of the ruins.
Know Before You Go
For the protection of the island and in keeping with its national park status, the major ruins and attractions on St Helena can only be accessed via guided tours. Cat-o’-Nine Tails is the major operator offering both school-group friendly day tours and night ghost tours. Tours depart from Manly Harbour about a 20-minute drive from the Brisbane CBD and combine historical facts with entertainment.
See https://www.sthelenaisland.com.au for up-to-date pricing and details.