Tag Archives: Norfolk Island

The cemetery – stories of the past

The bushes on the left bank have swallowed some of the grave stones

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.

This grave is hidden under sculpted bushes that were supposed to be along the edge of the cemetery but have engulfed several graves.

All the grass you can see covers bodies. It’s full.

Not everybody died young

 

 

Something interesting around every corner

A section of dirt road (most of it is bitumen). The sea is just over to the right, at the bottom of a 70m cliff. (See next photo)

The nicest thing about doing your own thing on Norfolk Island is you can take your time and stop anywhere you want. It’s hard to imagine but no, we hadn’t seen the whole island on our visit last year. This time we stopped off at every picnic spot along the cliffs to admire the wonderful scenery. We could wonder what was up that road and go and find out. Sometimes it was a disappointment – but not very often.

Cows have right of way on Norfolk.

The open road speed limit on the island is 50kph (about 30mph) and that’s eminently sensible. Most of the road surfaces are joined-together-filled-in-pot-holes, a rattle and a bump guaranteed for every metre travelled. The narrow roads twist and turn around the hills and valleys and when you go around that blind bend you might encounter another vehicle, or maybe a cow ambling across the road to the greener grass.

The picnic spots are all at the top of towering cliffs. Gannets and terns wheel in the air, sometimes far below where we stood, while the Pacific ocean crashed itself against the volcanic rocks in a flurry of white foam.

This was taken from the Captain Cook memorial noting his ‘discovery’ of the island in 1774. The small islets you can see are protected, safe habitat for sea birds. You can see the guano on the nearer one.

We drove down to Cascade Bay where the whaling station used to be. It’s all gone now, leaving flat spaces where the buildings used to stand. The only reminder of those darker days is the boilers where the whale oil was produced from the blubber.

The stratas of rock and lava produced by the volcanoes that made Norfolk is obvious at Cascade, where the hillside was cut away to form a flat area for parking.

The sea is much calmer (today) than at Kingston and I seem to remember the locals saying they would have liked to build a better harbour here. But, just as in outback Australia, the Powers That Be (PTB) in the large capital cities don’t listen to the locals. They foist the same rules and regulations on the people in these remote places that work in Brisbane or Sydney. For example, after NSW took over, the locals were no longer allowed to sell unpasteurised milk. They’d managed to survive for several hundred years on the raw stuff – but no. It’s the law. About fifteen hundred people live on Norfolk. The cost of a plant to pasteurise milk was out of the question, so milk is imported from New Zealand and all the cows on the roads and the farm paddocks are beef cattle. The PTB wasted millions on the pier iat Cascade, making no difference to the arduous business of landing supplies on the island.

The cost of living here is high – but when you see what has to happen to bring cargo ashore, it’s no wonder. There are no ports on the island. Cargo ships drop anchor off either the Cascade pier or the Kingston pier (depending on the weather) in deep water. The locals tow lighters out to the waiting ship. Cargo is lowered into the lighters and transported back to shore, where another crane is used to unload the boats. If the cargo is large (such as a bus or car) two lighters in parallel carry a platform out to the freighter and the vehicle is lowered onto that. Insurance costs are high but the possibility of loss or damage is high as well.

This is a picture of the lighters they use – although this one might be a little way past its use-by date.

The Kingston pier on a realively calm day

The Cascade pier on the same day. It all depends on the wind direction

Without the protection of the reef the waves crash against the shore just past the Kingston pier

Although there are a lot of solar panels on roofs, the main, reliable power is created with a diesel generator. Diesel is pumped from a ship anchored off shore via a pipe at Ball Bay. Power is expensive, so there’s no air conditioning. Anywhere. (Except cars – that’s different). The locals use the old fashioned methods – ceiling fans and open windows. But temperature isn’t an issue here. It’s mid-twenties pretty much all year round, with nights in the teens. The ocean flattens out temperature variations. It’s a sub-tropical climate, rather like Hervey Bay, but with much better soil.

That’ll do for this post. Next time I’ll talk about the penal colony.

The secret life of trees

When visitors arrive on Norfolk Island they’re picked up by a tour bus and taken for a half-day orientation tour, with the guide pointing out the main attractions. After a quick trip through the main township at Burnt Pine, featuring one roundabout and absolutely no traffic lights, we stop briefly at the lookout above Kingston, where the guide points out the wonderful Georgian buildings of Government House and Quality Row (that’s the name of the street). Over there across the golf course is Emily Bay, down there is the cemetery, that’s the old gaol and associated buildings. He drives around the foreshore from the pier, past the old gaol and out to the point where the lone pine stands sentinel. It’s an old tree. It appeared in drawings made for Captain Cook when he ‘discovered’ the island in 1774. We’re taken for a brief look into St Barnabas’s Chapel, the only remaining building from the Melanesian Mission. We admire the 360° view from Mt Pitt and we’re taken to “Orn Da Cliff” where Pine Tree tours holds its weekly island fish-fry with associated sunset scenes. We make a brief stop at Cascade Bay, where the old whaling station used to be. And all the time we’re seeing the beautiful green hills and valleys of Norfolk, where cows amble across the road or lie on the banks chewing their cud as the bus trundles by. For a quick overview of Norfolk, I’d recommend this account. It’s very well written with nice pictures :).

We took the tour. It’s always interesting to listen to different guides. This one wasn’t a local. He’d lived on Norfolk for forty years or so, but he was a Sydney boy who married a lady from the island. He knew his stuff, but on our previous visit we’d been driven around by guys born and bred here, proud sixth or seventh generation descendants of the Pitcairn mutineers with names like Christian or Quintal or Buffet, or the descendants of convicts. Those guys told us stories of growing up here. One told us as a teenager he climbed the kentia palm trees to pick nuts. On one such occasion the young fellow reached the top of the tree and came face to face with a rat, which also wanted kentia nuts. Well, when you’re up there in the canopy of a palm tree down is the only way to go. And that’s what the rat did – scrambling over the human on the way. Not long after that they put guards around the tree trunks to stop the rats from going up.

Any eggs from these ladies are definitely free range

Our Sydney tour guide had a different view of the feral chooks (domestic chickens), too. Like the cattle, chooks are everywhere on Norfolk – and they can fly. They’re being culled and he said we shouldn’t feel sorry for them. The eggs were stale and the chooks inedible and the cull was absolutely necessary. Hmmm. Last year we were told the cull was happening without consulting the locals. Our driver, who was not impressed, pointed out the chooks ate insects and did no harm, and when we visited locals in the progressive dinner, we saw feral chooks in people’s yards, and yes, the people collected the eggs. I’ll bet we ate a few, too. Chicken is a major item on Norfolk menus. The other thing the chooks do is scratch through the cow droppings looking for tasty treats, all the while spreading all that lovely goodness so the grass can use it.

All the mammals on Norfolk are feral, by the way. Including the people. The more polite expression is ‘introduced’. Like New Zealand, Norfolk’s natives are birds and plants. Sugar cane, bananas, arrowroot, kumara, stone fruit, corn, tomatoes – all are introduced. So was the Moreton Bay fig tree.

During the orientation tour the bus is driven down New Farm Road between the one hundred acre reserve and a magnificent row of Moreton Bay figs. The buses don’t stop there so it was our first ‘go to’ attraction when we ventured forth on our own.

There’s something a little bit spooky as you head up the road under the trees. I couldn’t help but think of Tolkien’s old forest, where Pippin and Merry are swallowed up by Old Man Willow, or the ents in Fangorn. I know this won’t mean much to you unless you’re a Lord of the Rings die-hard like me. But old and spooky are easy enough to understand. These trees are two hundred or more years old, probably planted by the first white settlers on the island some time between 1788 and 1815.

Pete’s head is just visible behind the root. He’s standing

And they look it. The roots writhe across the ground. Human fences are no obstacle. Buttress roots supporting the trunks tower up to over a tall man’s head. They’re studded with algae and ferns hide in corners. It’s easy to imagine these grand old gentlefolk talking to each other in the slow speech of trees. To them animal life must be a blur of movement. Or maybe not. Perhaps they’re well aware of us.

The fence has not impeded the tree in the least

Certainly they’re not ‘nice’.

They tolerate no competition. Look closely and you’ll find trees surrounded by roots. A brave Norfolk Island pine that took root next to the figs is slowly being strangled, joining others which have already met that fate.

This is one of the creepiest sights you’ll see here. The great tree has reached out to take a grip on an intruder. It doesn’t stand a chance.

From under the trees you catch glimpses of the sun-drenched cultivated valley. It’s a whole different world out there. I wondered why the trees had been planted. They’re not much good for timber and you can’t eat the fruit. That’s a question to which I expect I’ll never get an answer.

Follow the twisting road down toward the coast and you’ll cross the Bloody Bridge. It’s another place where the tours don’t stop – at least not for long enough to get off the bus for pictures. Our current guide did tell us an abbreviated version of the story of the name. It seems the convicts working on the building didn’t like their overseer at all, so they killed him. The more interesting version is that to hide evidence of the deed, the men popped the body into the bridge and kept working. The overseer had disappeared and they didn’t know what happened. The next day the replacement overseer noticed bloody weeping from the mortar between the stones.

The bloody bridge

There’s plenty of room to hide a body. Maybe one of those dark patches is blood???

 

A speck in the South Pacific

That’s tiny Phillip Island at the front and Norfolk Island behind it

We had a fascinating, memorable Christmas on Norfolk Island in 2017 and enjoyed it so much we went again in 2018. While we’d been with a group in 2017, in 2018 we did our own thing, visiting places we hadn’t reached the previous year, or re-visiting places where we would have liked a bit more time. We stayed in the same hotel but this time we had a penthouse with views of the island’s highest peak, Mt Pitt – and lots of lovely windows we could open to let in the breeze. There’s no air conditioning on the island. We were provided with a hire car to get around, together with a paper map. There’s no GPS covering the island roads. It’s all very last century but on an island that’s 8 km by 5 km, it’s really not that difficult.

We stayed in the main township, Burnt Pine. The convict remians are in Kingston at the bottom of the island on this map.

Getting there was a tiny bit thrilling. This time we stayed two nights at our friends’ house on Mt Tamborine south of Brisbane, where we witnessed the first of a number of storms that smashed the Gold Coast – but not up where we were. We drove to the airport, hoping we’d get an undercover parking spot this time. More storms were forecast, with hail the size of golf balls. Last year, though we’d paid online for undercover parking, we’d had to park outside in the elements, leaving the car to the mercy of the weather gods for over a week. This time, we were lucky, snaring a park on the top floor under the roof.

Although Norfolk Island is an Australian territory which has been managed from Australia for the past two years, we left from the international terminal. At least we don’t have to fill out departure cards anymore. After all, all the information you had to write down was already on your ticket. The flight to Norfolk left from one of the furthest extremities of Brisbane airport. It’s nowhere near the biggest in the world but it’s still a long walk to the gate without those moving travelators. And then there’s the several hours of waiting…

Proof of ID is required before you leave Australia. The Powers That Be prefer a passport but you can use a driver’s licence or other form of photo ID along with a proof of identity form that you can get from Australia Post. Once in the air we also had to fill in a landing form. (Just a moment while I roll my eyes.) Travelling to Norfolk is like flying from the mainland to Tasmania, for goodness sake. And this landing form is identical to the one you fill out when coming back from REAL overseas (eg Europe) into Australia. The cabin crew have to explain that yes, the form asks for your home address, but what it really wants is where you’ll be staying on Norfolk. Etc. We talked to a local in a shop, who told us that if she goes over to Oz, coming home she puts her name and address and nothing else. The immigration people know she’s a local.

We got off the ground on time for the two-hour flight to Norfolk. Pete had the window seat and his trusty tablet to take photos. Norfolk Island is a speck in the ocean and that’s so clear from the air (see above). Pete took pictures as we approached, coming down with historic Kingston clearly visible.

The wheels had hit the deck and the brakes were on, pushing us back into our seats. Then suddenly the brakes were off, the engines powered up and we lifted off again. When training pilots it’s called a touch and go – but I suspected this wasn’t a training run. After several minutes the captain came on to explain the aircraft had been hit by a cross-wind and he’d decided prudence was wisest. As a result, we got a fly-around of the island. Peter wasn’t the only one taking pictures before the plane finally landed.

The whole island. The high bit is Mt Pitt, surrounded by national park.

That’s Kingston below. The reef protects Emily Bay and Slaughter Bay, with the jetty where goods are landed just across from the large rectangle that is the remains of the prison. Evidence of Polynesian visitors in the mid-fifteenth century is in the grove of Norfolk Island pines around Emily Bay. The trees would not have been there then.

I’m not going to talk about Norfolk’s extraordinary history in this series of posts, though I’m sure it’ll get a mention in passing. You can read all about that in last year’s trip here. You’ll find posts about the brutal penal colony and how the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers involved in the mutiny on the Bounty came to move from Pitcairn Island to Norfolk Island. But this time we travelled at our own gentle pace, interspersed with an hour or two of test match cricket (which we won’t talk about).

If you’re interested in more information this is a useful website.

A few more Norfolk Island bits

I’ve been persuaded to write one more Norfolk article, on account of having forgotten a few things I’m told I should have mentioned <sigh>.

I mentioned the little trip in the horse-drawn cart, but said no more since I didn’t go. I love horses, but they have a very nasty effect on me which has become worse over the years. So I have to avoid being in their proximity. Pete went, though, and had a thoroughly nice time meandering slowly though the Norfolk Island countryside. Culla (that’s his nickname – you’ll find his number in the telephone directory nickname section) picked up his passengers from the hotel in a bus and took them to the stables where everybody watched him harness Sammy 2 and Buddy, ready for the Big Trip.

Culla bringing the boys out

They’re Clydesdales, imported at great expense from Australia. I read a wonderful article about Norfolk and horses in the local (free) colour magazine. It described how horses used to wander around in much the same way as the cows. If you couldn’t find your own horse you just used one of the others. Naturally, they bred, and created their own Norfolk variant – if I remember rightly, a pretty plain horse, great at negotiating Norfolk’s steep valleys, tough and resourceful. They’ve been replaced by motor vehicles these days, so Culla’s tour is a lovely reminder of how things used to be.

Culla clearly loves his horses. Although they thrive on work, he gives them a helping hand going up hill, with his brother in a ute taking the strain for the two horses.

After a picnic on a cliff overlooking the sea (what else is new – this is Norfolk Island) the horses went off home.

Picnic on the cliff

Before he drove his guests back to the hotel, Culla looked after his horses first. As it should be.

I also mentioned in passing that we’d gone to the St Barnabas Chapel, where John Christian told us about the building. Christianity came to Norfolk with the Pitcairn Islanders, who became a Christian flock under the guidance of Bounty mutineer, John Adams. The light was… confronting for photography, with parts too bright and parts too dark. But we could certainly admire the exquisite workmanship.

The ceiling is shaped like a ship’s keel, all built by the young people from the Melanesian mission set up not long after the Pitcairners settled on Norfolk. There’s not a nail in the building, all done with joinery. The decoration is a mix of Christian and Melanesian, done with mother of pearl. The stained-glass windows above the altar are priceless, arguably the only ones in the world where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are shown beardless. John Christian told us the bishop hated them, but it was too late to change them. The outside of the windows have been covered with plain glass to protect them from the crimson rosellas, who have apparently taken to picking at the material holding the panels in place. This website will provide you with good pictures.

I also mentioned that we attended a progressive dinner. All of the hosts had interesting stories to tell. When the Pitcairners arrived on Norfolk they received fifty acres of land which was divided up over the generations. One of our hosts was given, by his mother, one acre of her thirteen acres, and three Norfolk Island pines. One of the local saw mills cut up the trees for him, retaining one as payment. The other two he used to build his house. Barter system, see?

Another host told us she came from Queensland and had no idea she had a relationship to anyone on Norfolk until she traced her family history. She made the point that if you’ve got convicts in the family, it’s all there in the trial records. Name, place of birth, crime, punishment, where they were sent, when… Whereas law abiding citizens just faded away into the mists of time. She came to Norfolk to follow her roots and met (and married) somebody else from Victoria doing the same thing. Norfolk seems to gather up its own.

So there you are. If you want anymore, better go and visit. Planes travel to Norfolk from Sydney, Brisbane, and Auckland.

 

How humans changed Norfolk Island

Emily Bay used to be called Turtle Bay

Norfolk Island is a stunningly beautiful place but it doesn’t take long before you realise what an enormous impact humans have made on its ecology. It’s a lesson to us all, I suppose. These days, importation of any animal or vegetable material to Norfolk is strictly controlled. We watched the cute little beagle sniffing everyone’s bags at the airport. But that wasn’t always the case.

When Captain Cook saw Norfolk in 1774 the massive Norfolk Island pines would have covered the entire island. There were no meadows or grasslands. There were no land animals. There are still no snakes. But there were birds which were specially adapted to the heavily-wooded conditions.

Then humans arrived.

They cut down the trees and planted grass, cane sugar, fruit trees, corn, rice, and other food crops. They brought in horses, cows, goats, pigs, and rabbits. And less popular creatures, like rats and no doubt mice, as well as cats and dogs that went feral. Beautiful Emily Bay was originally called Turtle Bay because of all the turtles there. In the usual thoughtless human manner, the population was soon wiped out by the hungry settlers.

Phillip Island, at back, is 6km from Norfolk. The other island is Nepean, where the convicts cut stone for building material

Pigs, goats and rabbits had been released on Phillip Island, and continued to thrive when the people left. Pigs and goats were removed by the early 20th century but the rabbits remained. Our guides told us that until relatively recently Phillip Island looked like Uluru, devoid of any green. An eradication program has been successful with the last rabbits removed in 1988, and Phillip Island is recovering. [1]

One of Norfolk’s more successful imports was the kentia palm, which is native to Lord Howe Island. Kentias are the parlour palms you see in hotel lobbies and the like, and during the nineteen nineties they would all have been grown from seed collected on Norfolk. For a while the seeds were worth a lot of money. But humans weren’t the only ones who valued them. Rats found them good to eat, so farmers had to fit rat guards on their palms to stop predation. The value of kentia seed dropped as soon as the buyers had enough to grow their own in hot houses.

Norfolk Island has two bird species endemic to the island – the green parrot and the morepork, a form of boobook owl. Both had thrived in those thick, dark forests. But as the trees were felled, their habitat shrank. At last, one sole female morepork was the only owl calling in the darkness, the last of her kind. The bird’s closest relative was a species living in New Zealand and scientists on Norfolk obtained two males from there, hoping she would mate with one of them. She did, and now there is a small colony of moreporks in Norfolk’s national park. But it is not quite the same as the original species, and it is severely inbred, so even this hybrid is threatened. It’s a sad tale. Read more about it here.

Feral crimson rosells. It’s not quite the same as the ones we saw in Victoria

The green parrot has been rescued from the brink. Scientists in the national park set up nesting boxes for them. Apart from the reduction in habitat, the birds have also had to endure competition for the remaining nesting hollows from introduced crimson rosellas, no doubt brought in from Australia by some bird collector, who allowed them to escape, or let them go. They’re no longer exactly the same as their Australian cousins. The green parrot population is still relatively small and endangered. Read the whole story here.

We didn’t see, or hear, either the green parrot or the morepork, but then, we didn’t spend any time in their habitat.

A Tern chick in a Norfolk Island pine

We did see young terns, though. These birds don’t build nests. They lay their eggs directly on the branch of a Norfolk pine, selecting the same site every year. Someone told us the birds use an adhesive of some sort to keep the eggs in place, but the general consensus with the guides was that’s just one of those stories tour guides tell when they don’t know the answer [2]. Humans (of course) collected the eggs, with a subsequent impact on the population , but at least the birds used trees in some pretty inaccessible locations. These days the islanders are allowed to collect tern eggs on Phillip Island for just a few weeks every year. Tern parents will lay a second egg if the first one falls or disappears, so the loss of eggs doesn’t have a major impact. After the chick hatches it is a small ball of grey fluff hanging on to its branch. The parents keep an eye on it and come in with sprats caught in the sea to feed it until it can fly.

Norfolk is a haven for sea birds, with populations of several tern species, gannets, and mutton birds. There are also small wrens and kingfishers.

This is my last Norfolk Island post. I can’t help feeling there’s so much more – a telephone directory listing people by nickname, more about the food, and the language. So here are some websites for you to look at.

Norfolk Island Travel Centre Covers accommodation, tours and the like

Ten things you might not know about Norfolk Island This one is particularly interesting

Discover Norfolk Island This site covers the island’s history as well as other aspects

Since July 2016 Norfolk Island has reverted to Australian control. There are reasons, as explained in this article, and there is no denying the island’s council asked for Australian help. But as usual, the Powers That Be in Canberra and Sydney (NI comes under NSW state control) have no idea how people live their lives outside the big cities. Poor little Norfolk Island has been swamped with rules and regulations, and decisions made for them without consultation. For example, since July 2016 all milk has to be pasteurised. Never mind the fact that the locals have managed to survive for 150 years on raw milk. So no more milking cows along the verges – it would cost far to much to set up a pasteurising plant. Milk is imported from New Zealand. If you want to buy the fresh stuff it was $9.20 per litre in the local supermarket. The long-life stuff is $2.30 a litre. So now the cows you see grazing by the roadside are all beef cattle.

Remember the feral chooks? Somebody in Australia decided they needed to be culled, so someone came over to NI to shoot them. Nobody discussed the issue with the locals. Some of them told us the chooks help keep down the insect population. Others collect eggs, and I suspect there’s a bit of local culling for the table. But never mind. A Decision had been made somewhere. Orders were dispatched. I wonder what they’ll do about the feral rosellas?

These are just two examples of how the New Order has impacted the lives of Norfolk Islanders. There are others. The locals have created their own political group to fight for their rights. As far as they’re concerned, Queen Victoria gave them Norfolk Island for their own. I don’t believe that’s entirely true, but I assure you, if I lived on Norfolk I’d join that group in a heartbeat.

The sign says ‘Hands up for democracy’. NI’s flag is at half mast.

If you get a chance to visit Norfolk Island, do. It was honestly one of the best, most jam-packed holidays I’ve ever had.

And as a last hurrah, another sunset.

Peter’s sunset shot. Used with permission.

 

 

 

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

 

Norfolk Island’s convict past

The cemetery from the lookout

Norfolk Island’s early European history is entwined with the British penal system and the colonisation of Australia, so part of any visit to the island has to include the convict ruins, and the graveyard. There’s not much to show for the island’s first settlement in 1788. Here’s a short piece about those first colonists. When the colony finally closed down in 1814 all the buildings and livestock were destroyed before the settlers were returned to the Australian mainland. Although convicts were included amongst the first colonists, it was never a penal colony. That came later.

The original settlers who landed in 1788

In 1824 the government in NSW decided to send the worst of its prisoners to Norfolk Island, never to return. The prisoners were put to work quarrying stone and constructing the beautiful Georgian buildings gracing the area around Kingston. The stone was cut on nearby Nepean Island, and more than one man died in the treacherous channel there. The worst job the convicts could have was cutting the finer stone from below the high tide line. It meant they had to work waist-deep in water. The difference in quality is obvious, and the better stone was used for verandas to this day.

On our first introductory tour of Norfolk our driver took us across the bloody bridge. While the true reason for the name isn’t altogether settled, the story’s a good one. Seems the convicts working on the bridge didn’t much like the brutal overseer, so they killed him. To hide the crime, they put the body into the bridgework.  Next day the replacement overseer noticed blood seeping out in the mortar between the stones. The name (of course) has stuck.

John Christian with a headstone

John Christian took us on a tour of the convict ruins. The man is a mine of information, rattling off names, dates, and facts like a machine gun. There’s not much left of the interior of the jail – the stones were used by the new arrivals to construct new buildings. But the outlines are still there. John described the living conditions, with several men crammed into tiny cells. Prisoners worked in chains and flogging was a common punishment. John told us about one fellow who was flogged to death. When he fainted after 100 blows he was placed in a cell for three days then wheeled out for a second round, which killed him.

There are plenty of sources of information about the conditions in the prison. I’ve had a look and I do wonder about some of the stories we heard. Read a more balanced account of the penal system here. But the whole tour is about stories and family history. I’m sure the ghost tour would be well worth attending – maybe next time.

You can see the size of the cells from the ruins

There is no doubt that Norfolk Island prison was a hell on earth, but the prisoners sometimes put up a fight. In 1846 William Westwood, known as Jacky-Jacky, led a revolt, killing four prison officials. This was a man who couldn’t be contained. He escaped in Sydney, was sent to van Diemen’s land (Tasmania) where he escaped more than once, then finally ended up on Norfolk. His story is worth reading. He and several others were hanged for their part in the revolt, and their remains placed in unconsecrated ground. The commandant at the time, a man named Childs, was replaced by John Price, who had a fearsome reputation. Our guide told us about a particularly awful punishment, being confined in the dark cell. The prisoner was lowered into a tiny cell without doors and windows. Then the cell was sealed at the top (although it must have been opened to provide food and water). One man was kept in these conditions for a year and when he was removed, he was insane. All these stories reminded me very much of Auschwitz and even more of the prison on Rottnest Island. We haven’t learnt too much over the centuries.

Of course, some of the stories had happy endings. John told us about a seamstress sentenced to transportation, accused of stealing a scrap of fabric. This woman had a very useful skill and soon started making clothes for the officers’ wives. John said she started dress shops in Sydney and Paramatta, and went back to Blighty a wealthy woman who bought the shop where she had been employed. I couldn’t find the story on the web, but I hope it’s true.

Women in those days were treated like breeding stock. When it was recognised that there were not enough women in Australia, all the women who had incurred the death penalty in England had their sentences commuted to transportation. The Lady Juliana sailed for Port Jackson and arrived in 1790 with more than two hundred women aboard. She carried only women – an interesting point in its own right, and well worth a look at this article. One hundred and twenty of the women were sent to Norfolk. One was just 11 years old, sentenced to death for highway robbery (stealing another child’s clothes). Mary Wade ended up being the mother of twenty-one children. Read her story here.

The cemetery is divided into two halves with the older remains from convict times closer to the sea, marked off by a line of pillars. The rest of the area is still used, and we noticed locals tending family graves. One famous writer is buried here – Colleen McCollough called this island home and her memory is much-loved. Her husband still lives here, and her house is open to the public.

There are quite a few stones marking the graves in the old cemetery, but there are a lot more graves than the stones suggest. Convict graves were usually marked with wooden crosses, which have disappeared over the years. Female convicts, and some who had been executed, were given a headstone. Of course, soldiers and freemen automatically qualified.

When the British finally realised the folly of transporting ‘criminals’ to the colonies, they closed the prison at Norfolk in 1855. When the British left I get the idea the place wasn’t completely abandoned, though, because the people from Pitcairn arrived in 1856, and were confronted with huge four-legged beasts they’d never seen before – cows and horses. [1]

The Commandant

Anyway, enough of this morbid stuff. The enterprising Norfolk Islanders also use their convict past to entertain. Our group attended a “night as a convict”, all of us dressed in glamorous convict clothes. It wasn’t just our group of twenty – there must have been around one hundred seated at bench tables. Our overseers were the (smartly dressed) Commandant, and the red-robed Private Arty Parts. Both men possessed large dongers. The Commandant’s can be seen on the table beside him. It was an absolutely hilarious evening, with some off-colour humour, games and dances, and so forth. We convicts provided the entertainment. One example was a version of pass the parcel. The women were asked to form a circle, and three hats were passed around clockwise. When the music stopped, if you had a hat, you were out. Simple enough. But the Commandant and Private Parts introduced a complication – they added a Very Large rolling pin which was to go counter-clockwise, and which was to be passed with the knees, not the hands. Remember, the hats are also being passed. Nobody was obliged to take part, and naturally some people didn’t. Yes, of course I did. I haven’t laughed so much in a long while, and I’d recommend the evening. Dinner was involved, a simple meal served buffet-style with staff putting the food on the plate for you, just as would have happened in the convict mess halls. I can assure you we ate far better than the real convicts did.

The costumes are provided, but you have to give them back – although you can purchase them for $30. I couldn’t quite imagine where I’d be wearing it again, so I passed. One more point – the Commandant and Private Parts are not professional actors, they’re just members of the community doing their part. Sometimes things don’t work out. The week before, several of the guys scheduled for the roles were sick, so the convicts didn’t get a show. I know they were disappointed, and I would have been, too. But that’s life, I guess.

Next time we’ll get on to the people from Pitcairn.

Quality row – beautifully restored Georgian cottages, some of which are lived in.

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