Changing Times on Norfolk Island

It’s crunch time for Norfolk Island. Next year the island will lose its independent status as a self-governing Australian territory, and there’s a lot of local anxiety about what comes next. I’ve recently come back from a week on Norfolk Island, a group-painting trip that was a lot of fun, and this was my first chance to see this beautiful speck in the South Pacific.

watercolour of a lone pine at Norfolk Island

‘Lone Pine, Norfolk Island’

Norfolk Island has a rich and strange history. It has been settled four times: once by Polynesians, twice by convicts and their guards, and once by the current inhabitants, who are descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

The Polynesians arrived about 1400, probably from the Kermadec Islands, perhaps following the migratory shearwaters (mutton birds) that used to fly due west from the Kermadecs to breed on Norfolk Island. Archaeologists have discovered obsidian tools at a dig site close to the convict ruins, but eventually the Polynesians left. Nobody knows why. They left behind banana trees and a vegetarian Polynesian ratRattus exulans.

Cook discovered and named Norfolk Island on his second voyage on Resolution in 1774. He managed to land briefly and reported on the pine trees and flax on the island. The French explorer La Perouse had less success. He sailed around the island in January 1788 in search of a safe landing spot, but eventually gave up and sailed away, commenting that the place was fit only for ‘angels and eagles’.

Only a few weeks later, in March 1788, a small group of marines and convicts from the First Fleet landed on Norfolk Island, partly to deter the French (since they knew that La Perouse was sniffing around) and partly because tall trees and flax were valuable resources for a maritime nation, always on the lookout for new sources of masts and canvas. Unfortunately for the Royal Navy, the pines that dominate Norfolk Island are less sturdy than they appear, snapping easily at a weak spot where the branches meet the trunk – so, no masts.

In the early years, the settlement around Kingston (named after the first commandant, Phillip Gidley King) supplied grain to the mainland. This settlement lasted until the mainland didn’t need Norfolk Island’s crops any more, and the residents were moved to New Norfolk in Tasmania. The last settlers left in 1813.

The second convict settlement began in 1825. Like the Moreton Bay settlement at Brisbane, which dates from the same period, this was a place to send convicts who had offended a second time. Like Brisbane, it was brutal. I went on a tour of the convict sites, and our guide described an archaeological dig done some time back, which took samples from one of the underground pits where recalcitrant convicts were confined as further punishment. According to him (and I have no verification, I’m afraid) chemical analysis of the walls and floor show a layer of blood, followed by a layer of whitewash, then more blood, more whitewash….

When convict transportation finally ended in 1852, this settlement was abandoned too, and the final residents transferred to Tasmania in 1856 [see Mr. Baskerville’s comment below].

Meanwhile, far to the east of Norfolk Island, in 1789 the Bounty mutineers, with a number of Tahitian men and women, settled on Pitcairn Island. One of their first acts was to burn the Bounty – allegedly so that it couldn’t be seen by anyone searching for the mutineers, but also making it impossible for any of the party to change their mind and try to leave.

The first years were brutal and bloody – Lord of the Flies, with added sex and racism – and by 1800, only two men survived of the original mutineers, John Adams and Ned Young, together with most of the Tahitian women. By then there were 19 mixed race children, carrying the names of Adams, Young and the other mutineers: Christian, Quintall, Nobbs, and so on.

Life settled down. The last mutineer, John Adams, died in 1829, and any fear of British retribution ended. The population grew, and the island – only 2 miles across – was unable to support them all. In 1856 they petitioned the British government to find them a new home.

Coincidentally, Norfolk Island had just been abandoned – so the British government offered them the island. Most of the Pitcairn Islanders moved to Norfolk Island, and they have been there ever since. They inherited the abandoned roads, mills and dams of the convict settlement, and drew lots for the houses. They reused some of the dressed stone, but most of the convict settlement remains intact.

The New South Wales Government gave each family 50 acres of land, but otherwise left them largely to themselves. The same names recur, in the graveyard, but also in the phone book – Quintall, Adams, Christian, Nobbs. After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory [See Jack McClintock’s comment below], with its own stamps (as in Pitcairn, stamp collectors have been an invaluable source of revenue) but an Australian administrator and Australian currency.

In 1979 the Fraser Government gave Norfolk Island self-government, but at the end of 2015, that changes. The current Administrator of Norfolk Island, Gary Hardgrave, was a minister in the Howard Government who lost his seat in 2007. Tony Abbott appointed him with a brief to oversee the end of self-government and bring the island under Australian law.

At present, Norfolk Islanders pay no income tax, just a 12% GST, and the island is flat stony cold broke. There is no Medicare, no social security, and the infrastructure is decaying – the potholes in the roads need to be seen to be believed. And the population is falling, as children go to the mainland for further education and work.

Tourism is the only real source of income, but this is down as Australians travel further afield. Cruise tourism throughout the Pacific is up – but cruise ships face the same problem that faced La Perouse, and led to the wreck of the Sirius in 1790. Norfolk Island has no harbour, and no safe landing place for ocean-going ships. Supplies (or tourists) have to be transshipped into small lighters, which is slow and expensive and potentially dangerous in rough conditions.

Demonstration at Norfolk Island

Each hand is named, and represents an objector to the end of self-government on Norfolk Island.

Not surprisingly, the decision to end self-government is controversial. One local told me that some shops won’t serve the Hardgraves, and she had seen people smear the Administrator’s car with cow pats (cows have right of way on the roads). The locals have a history of mutiny, after all. Yet it is hard to see any alternative.

When self-government ends, Norfolk Island will have the status of a local government authority. The residents will pay Australian taxes, but get access to Australian welfare. They have been promised investment in infrastructure – perhaps even the longed for deep-water jetty that might transform their economy. Fixing the potholes would be a start.

With self-government, the role of the Administrator will change, but not disappear. The Administrator has often been a superannuated politician, and it is easy to see why someone might be pleased to take the gig.

Norfolk Island's Government House

Government House, Norfolk Island, first built 1829

Norfolk Island itself is quite achingly beautiful. It has a tight-knit community that is appealingly old fashioned, socially conservative, religious and royalist. The position of Administrator comes with a quite wonderful Government House, within a short walk of the beach at Emily Bay. The surf can be rough, but there’s good windsurfing nearby. The hills are steep, but a really dedicated cyclist would enjoy the challenge.

Update: As a friend points out, Norfolk Island got self-government in 1979 during the Fraser Government – Hawke didn’t come to power until 1983. Now corrected.
The Legislative Assembly has already been abolished (but not as yet Norfolk Island’s duty free status!). An elected Regional Council will be introduced in July 2016. More information available here.

See also Mr Baskerville’s comments below.

9 responses to “Changing Times on Norfolk Island

  1. I lived and worked on Norfolk for 3.5 years, fantastic place and culture – but the tour guide claims in Kingston should all be taken with a grain of salt, especially anything about convict brutality. This has in important function in the the local Pitcairner narrative, meaning ‘we are not like them’ (i.e. we were not nasty, vicious, brutal convicts). When the Pitcairners arrived in 1856, convicts were still there, and they cohabited for about 3 weeks, which is how they learned to milk cows (never having seen either cows or milk before), ride horses (never having seen them before), and came to know the vernacular place names of the island (such as Bloody Bridge) – but that disrupts the narrative, and so the local version that the convicts left in 1855 and the Pitcairners arrived the next year to a vacant island is a fantasy easily contradicted by historical evidence.
    The moves to self-government began in the mid-1970s, and there is a very interesting range of inquiries and reports since that time on self-government. There is often a lot of confusion on the island about its political status (no shortage of bush-constitutional lawyers, and history replete with ‘lost’, ‘stolen or ‘hidden’ documents). One of the few reliable written histories is Maeve O’Collins ‘An Uneasy Relationship’ (Pandanus Books, 2002). The Legislative Assembly was abolished in June 2015, which I understand to mean that self-government has already been abolished, but no doubt the whole thing is buried in a range of obfuscatory language,
    Norfolk’s Pitcairner culture is fascinating, and in a multi-cultural, federal country we should be making more efforts and resources available to support and encourage its continuity and evolution. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth has governed Norfolk since 1914 as a colony, and a colonial mentality still pervades federal authorities dealing with the island, which I believe is the real cause of the current problems on the island. The Feds, of course, heap all the blame on the ‘natives’.
    Government House Kingston is, by the way, the oldest purposely built vice-regal residence in Australia (and, I am sure, the rest of the Commonwealth) still serving its original purpose, dating from 1804. It is a key element in the World Heritage-listed Kingston & Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (KAVHA), which is one of the 11 sites that form the World-Heritage-listed Australian Convict Sites.
    Norfolk is indeed a stunningly beautiful place, and I encourage people to visit and experience it first hand – but don’t accept everything said or written on the island at face value – cultural resistance takes many forms.

    • Thank you! I’ve changed the date to 1856 – but left in the whitewash/blood! I admit I was a bit suspicious of this story (hence my parenthesis) especially after the guide went on to describe the ghost of a soldier who joins the bus trips at night!

      • Yes, I have met some of those ghosts in their day jobs! There is a history yet to be written of Pitcairner folk stories about the convicts and the convict system.

  2. Enjoyed your piece Marion. Since I visited in 2010 for the PHA conference I confess I’ve become quite proprietorial about Norfolk Island – no justification for it. I just loved the beauty of the island and of course its fascinating history of which so much still remains. At the conference I delivered a paper called
    The Handover which details who was left behind to wait for the Pitcairn Islanders to arrive. As Bruce Baskerville says above, the group included convicts, nine of them in fact, and the verdict of the Pitcairners of the time was that they were ‘very kind and helpful to us’. Among many other new experiences for the Islanders, the prisoners also gave 20 young Pitcairn boys their first taste of riding on a cart with wheels! By separate email I’ve sent you a copy of my paper but it can also be found in the published proceedings of the Professional Historians Conference 2010 called ‘Islands of History’ published in 2011 by Anchor Books. Details at their website. And of course for anyone who wants the full details of just what did happen at the second convict settlement, Tim Causer’s doctoral thesis is a must. He disproved so many myths e.g. most prisoners sent their were simply men who stole again after they arrived in NSW or VDL. Not the deeply depraved villains the most gothic tales depict. Causer also found that most prisoners spent only 3-4 years there. So, not the place which legend says was a sentence for life! However, whether your taste is for melodrama or the real story, I’d urge people to go to Norfolk Island. It is so beautiful . Swimming at Emily Bay is one of my best memories.
    So, are the fine line of historic houses known as Quality Row. The story of their designer, engineer Henry Lugard, forms part of my recent book called ‘The Luck of the Irish’.
    More power to your hand…. and many more blogs
    Babette Smith

    • Thanks Babette. As Bruce Baskerville says above – maybe someone should write a book about the folk tales of Norfolk Island. It’s not only there, of course – For the Term of his Natural Life is pretty gothic about Port Arthur.

  3. residentjudge

    This is fascinating- thank you all! I visited Norfolk Island a few years ago and picked up Merval Hoare’s history to read while I was there. I was amused by your comment, Bruce, about missing and found documents, because she mentions finding a ‘missing’ document. It seemed such a fantastic find (word used deliberately) that I wondered about its authenticity and the status of the find. I tried unsuccessfully to find Tim Causer’s thesis, but have very much enjoyed reading his articles and reviews that can be accessed online.

  4. Really interesting – thanks Marion. And I like your sketch!

  5. re. “After federation in 1901, Norfolk Island became an Australian territory”

    Not so Marion. Norfolk Island became a DEPENDENT TERRITORY ‘under the administrative authority’ of the Federal Gov’t. on 1 July 1914.

    Please consult:

    Click to access data.pdf

    …for the truth of the matter.

    Otherwise a fair and balanced account.

    Regards, Jack McClintock

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