A tiny speck of an island

We just spent a week on Norfolk Island, a tiny speck of an island (~35 square kilometres) in the South Pacific a little over 1,600km North East of Sydney. What a fascinating place. The island is one of Australia’s territories, but even so, it had a high level of autonomy until July 2016, when it was brought much more tightly under Australian administration. You might say that Norfolk’s relationship with Australia is… complicated.

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1774 personnel from Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution were the first Europeans to land on Norfolk. Cook charted the island and made special note of both the towering Norfolk Island pines which grow in profusion there, and a plant that resembled the flax used in Britain to make sailcloth. The precipitous cliffs were daunting, but Cook sent out a party in a long boat which was able to make land and establish the island was uninhabited. Location and description duly noted, Cook sailed away. After that there were three waves of ‘immigrants’, each of which left their mark on the island and its present population.

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip, commanding a fleet of eleven ships carrying around 1300 marines, sailors, settlers, and convicts, established a colony on the shores of Port Jackson which was to become Sydney. [1] He also received Admiralty orders to send a party to Norfolk Island to claim the territory for the Crown. The group of twenty-three hand-picked convicts and soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Gidley King arrived in March 1788, just 6 weeks after the colony was established in New South Wales, and started up a settlement at what is now Kingston. There were two reasons why the island was important – those magnificent trees that Cook had believed could be used for ship’s masts, and associated with that, the need to keep them out of the hands of the French, who had an expedition in the Pacific at the time. As it happens, La Perouse encountered Norfolk Island on 13 January 1788, but high seas prevented a landing, and he moved on [2].

A log of the Norfolk Island pine. The way the branches fit into the trunk is clearly visible

One of the new Norfolk Islanders was a carpenter who soon established that Norfolk Island pine was not suitable for masts. Despite its appearance – and name, the tree is a hardwood. Those lateral branches go deep into the tree’s core, which means there is a point of weakness with every branch. That said, it’s magnificent timber and the islanders still use it extensively as a building material. Norfolk was a rich and fertile land, and many people were transferred there during the early days of the New South Wales colony, when the settlers on the Big Island faced starvation.

But Norfolk is remote and does not have a real harbour. Having decided it was too expensive to maintain the colony, the Governor of NSW ended the first settlement in 1815, when the last of the settlers were moved back to Australia (many reluctantly). All their buildings and livestock were destroyed so that they would not fall into the hands of any other foreign power (aka France, although the French were busy in Europe at the time). The Island returned to nature for the next nine years until, in 1824, the Governor of NSW decided to open a new penal colony for the worst of the convicts. It was at this time that the beautiful stone buildings were constructed around the harbour at Kingston, using, of course, convict labour.

Military barracks, beautifully restored. Note the barracks wall.

This was the second wave of settlers. The penal colony had a reputation for being exceptionally harsh. We were told some stories when we visited the ruins, but I’ll refer to some of those later.  The prison was finally closed in 1855 when the last of the convicts were transferred to van Diemen’s land (Tasmania). Once again, Norfolk was uninhabited by humans.

On an even tinier speck of land in the South Pacific, 5 square kilometre Pitcairn Island, the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the mutineers who set Captain Bligh adrift in HMAV Bounty’s long boat were running out of room. They wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking for a place of refuge and she granted them the now-abandoned Norfolk Island. [3] The third wave of settlers – the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives – arrived at Kingston in 1856.

Today’s Islanders are proud of their heritage. All of them can tell you their ancestry, citing ‘seventh generation Pitcairn’, or an association through a convict from the first settlement, or the much harsher second settlement. The surname Christian is common, along with Quintal and Young. There are many Baileys, descendants of a blacksmith who joined the community from outside. The Pitcairn descendants tend to be tall and obviously of mixed race, with darker skin than Europeans and high Polynesian cheekbones. Other new blood came to the island. Whales migrate nearby and American whaling ships used Norfolk as a base. Some of the sailors didn’t leave. Some people returned to Norfolk from Australia.

These days tourism is Norfolk’s main industry and everybody takes part. John Christian, who seems to be something of an oral historian, told us the history of St Barnabas’s chapel. He also took us through the remains of the prison at Kingston, telling us tales of convicts, and over the graveyard where he showed us the graves of some of the convicts he’d talked about – and the less disreputable people, too.

Sunset at the fish fry

One of the Buffets showed us George Bailey’s farm and his workshop. A descendant of a whaling sailor named Evans proudly displayed her forebear’s telescope before showing us what the islanders could do with bananas (they call them ‘plun’). Several Christians drove the buses we travelled on. Norfolk has its own language, a fusion between eighteenth century English and Polynesian, and we were taught some of it. They showed us how they used the local palms to weave hats, shared their food, and generally made us feel at home. One evening we attended a progressive dinner, where each course was served at an island home and the hosts talked about their lives on Norfolk. Another evening we attended a fish fry on a cliff facing west so we could admire the sunset while we ate morsels of trumpeter coated in a batter made with coconut milk and deep fried. Another day, Culla took our group on a cart drawn by a couple of Clydesdales.

Buddy and Sammy

Jane Evans described herself as growing up poor – but she didn’t know it. It’s a rich life, but it doesn’t involve money. Importing anything is wildly expensive, so there’s a philosophy of making do, of working with your neighbour, of barter. They don’t grow wheat, so they use arrowroot and maize, and other Polynesian foodstuffs. Chooks are feral on the island and domestic cattle roam around the roads (they have right of way). Each person on Norfolk can have up to ten cows roaming freely, at a cost of $145 pa. They all wear eartags so the owner can be identified.

There’s so much more to tell you, but this is getting long, so I’ll just share a few pictures of the gosh-wow, ooh-ahh scenery.

Next time we’ll get into a bit more history, and that complicated relationship with Australia.

Nepean Isl on the left, Phillip Isl on the right

Emily Bay where he locals swim

A view of Kingston and Emily Bay from up on the hill

Rugged coastline

Going down is easier than coming up

View across the golf course to Nepean Island and Phillip Island

The Pacific keeps on rolling in

One thought on “A tiny speck of an island

  1. Clair Robb

    Well done Greta. Had our photos developed yesterday and it’s obvious that I needn’t have bothered just looking at your post together with the very informative history. Much appreciated. Clair.

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