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.
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 rat, Rattus 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.
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 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.