Tag Archives: Pitcairn

The settlers from Pitcairn

Cows have right of way on Norfolk. There used to be free-roaming horses, too

The third wave of immigrants to Norfolk Island were the people from Pitcairn Island, and they form the basis of most of the permanent population. The mutiny on the Bounty is part of their family history. It’s how their ancestors came to Pitcairn Island, a remote 2 square miles in the South Pacific. I suppose everybody has heard of the mutiny, if only because of the movie starring Marlon Brando. But we Australians maybe know a little more. Bligh was forced into the ship’s longboat with eighteen companions – more would have gone with the captain had there been room. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the overloaded long boat across to Timor, then on to Batavia. Bligh became one of Australia’s early governors. [1]

For the people of Norfolk Island what happened to Fletcher Christian and the ‘mutineers’ is much more important. Christian eventually took those men who had not supported the mutiny to Tahiti, then, knowing the Admiralty would come looking for them if the mutiny was discovered, he set sail for a safe haven, taking with him eight mutineers, six Polynesian men, twelve women, and a baby. [2]

Pitcairn was safe enough, but very small; there was increasing tension between the white men and the Polynesians, and eventually all but one of the men was killed. John Adams had turned to religion and led his remaining flock well. But the island was soon overpopulated. In due course the islanders wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, begging her for a new home. Now I’m something of a cynic: I think that request happily coincided with the decision to close the penal settlement on Norfolk. There were good economic reasons for closure – but it did offer an opportunity to those pesky French if the island was abandoned. I imagined a scene from “Yes Prime Minister”, with Sir Humphrey explaining the value of handing over the island to the Pitcairn folk, who could be left to it with very little further impact on the English purse. And they’d keep the dreadful Froggies out. Win win win.

Ahem. Back to Norfolk. Two local artists have created a cyclorama that illustrates the history of the Pitcairn islanders from the Bounty’s departure from Portsmouth through to the mutiny, settlement on Pitcairn and then the first landing on Norfolk in 1856. The cyclorama is a series of stunning, realistic paintings set in a circle. As you walk from one scene to the next, you listen to music and sounds to accompany what you’re looking at. Documents explaining the history are on the opposite wall. It’s a spectacular historical experience. No photos are allowed, but here’s the website. Click through the header to get some idea of this very special place.

The Pitcairn Islanders were confronted with a very different environment to the one they’d left. I can’t do any better than their own description, so pop over here and read it. It’s not very long, and I’ll wait for you to catch up.

Welcome back. The Norfolk Island people are proud of their heritage and are very happy to share. We visited the Pitcairn settlers’ village to learn a little about the lifestyle of the earliest settlers. In fact, much of what we were shown was the result of the industry of George Bailey, who joined the community from outside. He was a blacksmith, a skill the earlier settlers would definitely need.

The still-working forge

The boys leaning over the engine of the 1929 Ford

Norfolk has a sub-tropical climate, so many different varieties of plants can be grown. The exceptions are anything that needs a cold winter, like berries and apples. The Pitcairners grew the plants they knew – many types of bananas, guavas, arrowroot, corn, and kumara. Pretty much everybody has a vegetable garden to this day. We went for a short drive in a 1929 Ford which had been the island’s very first tourist ‘bus’. It’s fun, but my back was not impressed. Once again, the locals have done a better job of describing the Pitcairn Settlers’ Village than I can, with details I’d forgotten, so here’s the link. We spent some time in Jane Evans’s shed in Music Valley. Jane is the descendant of a whaler, and proudly displayed his telescope. She grew up here in this little piece of paradise. If she wanted a fishing rod she cut a length of golden cane bamboo, tied a short line to the end so that it hung down to her waist level, slung her catch bag over her shoulder, and strolled the short walk to the sea. When she caught a fish it hung at waist level when she raised the pole, and she could easily slip the fish into her catch bag. She showed us two uses for bananas – which she called plun. The first, from overripe bananas, was a delicious banana bread. The second was made from green plun almost ready to ripen. She skinned the plun using a knife, then grated it. The grated plun is formed into little dumplings and fried in oil. She served it with a sauce made of cream mixed with a little bit of golden syrup. She demonstrated a wonderful contraption that removes the kernels from dried corn, then returns the core to the operator. And she showed us a number of hand woven Norfolk Island hats, with a brief demo of the techniques used.

Jane showing the corn-kernel-remover. The cores are used as fire lighters. Waste not, want not.

Later in the day we were treated to a detailed demonstration of the art of hat-weaving using several different local materials, each requiring different preparation. These were all techniques the Islanders had learnt from their Polynesian forebears.

That fusion of cultures is so important. Early in our visit we heard one example of how the British got it very, very wrong. I mentioned in a previous post that Cook had noticed a plant he’d identified as flax, which was used to make sailcloth. It was actually a lilium, so techniques used in Europe to process flax didn’t work. However, it was known that the Maoris in New Zealand used a similar plant to weave cloth, so the enterprising Europeans with their incorrigible feeling of entitlement kidnapped two Maoris so they could explain how to process the plant. But white entitlement actually meant white male entitlement. The women did the cloth making so the Maori warrior and his cleric mate the English had kidnapped couldn’t help them. (Haha) The two men were taken back to New Zealand after their kidnappers explained they just wanted to know how to make flax. [3]

We had an opportunity to sample Norfolk Island food at the fish fry – a fun outdoor gathering involving deep fried fish nuggets Norfolk Island style, salads, a number of local dishes, alcohol, and an entertainer, all while the sun sank into the Western sea.

The Norfolk Islanders have developed their own spoken language, which is a kind of pidgin mixed with Tahitian words. On one of our tours Kath taught us a little song in Norfolkese (the chorus, anyway), accompanying the singing with her home made ukulele.

Kath’s little song

There was so much to see and do on this little island. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So much to follow up on, and read about. And to think about. It’s interesting to look at human impact on this tiny piece of nature. I’ll do that next time. I’ll finish with a few more nature pics. Because I can.

The view from Mt Pitt

Sunset into the sea

 

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