Last year Peter and I had gone on a conducted tour of Kingston’s convict ruins with a descendant of the Christian family. I’d strongly suggest that anybody going to Norfolk for the first time attends the tours. The guides are mines of information, telling stories of convicts and jailers, painting a vivid picture of the past. I wrote about that visit here. The old jail was a horrible place and some of the jailers were sadistic brutes.
There’s not much to see in the rectangle that forms the main walls of the prison. The stone was taken away to use elsewhere, some of fairly recently. I’ve seen a black and white photo from the 1920’s where some of the cell walls were still intact. It was no doubt used to rebuild the lovely Georgian mansions along Quality Row. At least one of the homes, fully restored, is open for visitors. There’s also a museum for HMS Sirius, flag ship of the First Fleet which sailed into Port Jackson in 1788. She took the first settlers to Norfolk Island and sunk just off the coast of Kingston in Slaughter Bay.
We headed for the old cemetery. We’d been there before but it deserved more time. Again, it’s worth going with a guide and some of what I say now I heard last year.
The cemetery is still used. Wandering around the more modern parts you’ll see the same surnames repeated: Christian, Bailey, Adams, Buffet, Quinlan – all the descendants of the Pitcairn Islanders who arrived in the 1850’s. There’s no undertaker on Norfolk. If someone dies (as happened when we were there) an announcement is made on the local radio and the Norfolk and Australian flags are flown at half mast. Some of the locals dig the grave for the price of a couple of cartons of beer. Everyone is invited to the service via the radio.The grounds are well-tended and maybe because it was Christmas, many of the graves had flowers, mostly artificial, long-lasting colour.
Pass between four large gate pillars though, and you walk back into time. This was where the dead from the first settlement and the second settlement were buried.
There aren’t many gravestones from the first settlement which ended in 1815, but we found a few. Although there were convicts in that settlement, Norfolk was not at that time a penal colony. That came later – and convicts were given little recognition. A simple wooden cross marked their place and they have been destroyed by the wind and the salt spray. The ground we walked over has been x-rayed. It’s packed with bodies. I expect there are records of who was bried but the markers are gone. Many of the gravestones are illegible for the same reason. Gravestones and in some cases mausoleums were erected for the officers and men of the guard units and their wives and children. Some convicts have gravestones – those executed for mutiny or similar, and also the female convicts.
Walking over the grass I was reminded of the rediscovered cemetery on Rottnest Island where aboriginal prisoners were buried without recognition. It seems any kind of convict got the same treatment. Reading the gravestones it is obvious that life was harsh. Many men were Irish, and many died young. Many children died. Quite a few men drowned while crossing bars, or fishing. There’s no record of the many convicts who drowned as they crossed the channel from Kingston to Nepean Island to cut stone blocks for the buildings.
Come with me and visit some of these past lives, footnotes in the journals of history. Some tell a story, some are simply names but all were people who lived.