As Dark Paradise author Robert Macklin reminds us, all nations lie about their past. Whether it the Turks lying about a genocide of Armenians, Japanese ignoring war crimes, Americans glossing over their slave owning Founding Fathers, or the Israelis invoking ancient Hebrew lore to justify savage oppression of Palestinians, nations across the world have turned history to their agenda. The British, says Macklin, are past masters at whitewashing their past with a cheer squad of intellectuals heaping praise for the way they brought civilisation to the world, while ignoring the pillaging of Africa and the attempt to turn China into a nation of drug addicts.
The Australians have learned well from their British forebears and the predatory conquest of an entire continent has been hidden behind concepts of British law and order. Macklin’s tale is about the savagery that underpinned the Empire’s expansion into a small neglected corner of Australia: Norfolk Island. The Island was the first place that empire expanded after Sydney and its story incorporates three fascinating strands: the dark strain of convictism, the aftermath of the mutiny on the Bounty and the sexual predations of the High Anglican Melanesian Mission.
Captain James Cook discovered Norfolk, though not on the same voyage as his 1770 journey up the east coast of Australia. It was on his second voyage in 1774, a vain journey to find the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, when he arrived at the north-west tip of the island. It was a short stay but its significance lay in the discovery of wild flax which Cook believed was a natural raw material for canvas sail. The great pine trees that dotted the island also looked perfect for masts and spars. Britain had neither commodity and was forced to import them from Russia. “The discovery may be both useful and valuable,” Cook wrote.
It took the upheaval of the American Revolution for Britain to turn its attentions to the south Pacific, and not for sails but for jails. Within 18 days of the First Fleet arriving in Sydney, Governor Arthur Phillip dispatched Lt Philip Gidley King to establish a settlement on Norfolk with a group of 15 convicts, five free men and two marines. They arrived on the island on Leap Year Day and took five days to negotiate the reefs to a safe landing.
King had his eyes on the flax and pines, and also on one of the six convict women in his new colony. He was unaware – and it would not be discovered until the late 20th century – the island was previously colonised by a small group of seafarers from north New Zealand or the Kermadec Islands using double-canoes. Between the 13th and 15th centuries they survived on fish and birds before mysterious disappearing either voluntarily or by violence induced by an imbalance of the sexes. They left behind the New Zealand flax and the Polynesian rat.
The latter were joined by European stowaways from King’s ship and together they ruled the ecosystem of the island. King’s plans had a more immediate enemy. The island’s pine trees were too brittle for masts and spars while King’s men did not have the technology to convert flax into canvas. Sexual tension replaced early enthusiasm, with men outnumbering women three to one. King codified 11 commandments into laws including the need to “behave devoutly” and the more puzzling “no exchange of clothing”. The rats and hot winds played havoc with cultivation and the colony survived on fish. A convict rebellion was narrowly defeated by the actions of an informer.
Meanwhile, another British actor in the Norfolk story was in the south Pacific. Lieutenant William Bligh, a protégé of Cook, was sailing to Tahiti in 1788 in command of HMS Bounty. Bligh’s orders were to turn the island into a slave state in the service of Empire. Aboard was Fletcher Christian, a midshipman Bligh promoted ahead of longer-serving hands. The pair were attracted to each other, though it is doubtful they consummated their relationship.
Despite this, Bligh found constant carping fault with Christian’s work. The easy Tahitian morals were a profound shock to the straight-laced British crew and Christian’s plotting against Bligh may have begun there. When they went to Tonga, a huge row erupted over missing coconuts and Bligh punished him before inviting him to dinner. In a state of confusion Christian plotted with others to desert, a plan which evolved into mutiny. He led a group of nine armed with muskets, bursting into Bligh’s cabin and putting a knife to his throat. The following morning, the Bligh loyalists were gathered together and put onto a cutter for an improbable 3600km journey to Timor, while Christian set sail for Tahiti. Facing a hostile reception and worried about British ships, they departed with 500 pigs and 25 Tahitians going first to Tonga and arriving at Pitcairn in 1790. The island had fertile soil, fresh water, tropical fruits and most importantly was utterly remote.
Bligh returned to Britain and was acquitted at a court-martial. King was also sent back to Britain while the martinet Major Robert Ross commanded Norfolk. The convicts seethed under tiny rations and draconian punishments for minor infringements. King returned as Lt-Governor to find 700 people on an island riven with violence and theft. Flax-dressers were brought from New Zealand to make canvas with no success. The Rum Corps philosophy spread to the island creating a caste system.
On Pitcairn life was no more idyllic. The colonisers divided into two murderous groups treating the Tahitians like slaves while Christian withdrew into a solitary life. The Polynesians rebelled killing five of the nine mutineers before the tables turned and four of them were killed. The main effect was to rebalance the sexes and a relative peace broke out.
Peace was the last thing on the new Norfolk ruler’s mind when King became governor of NSW. His replacement, former Governor John Hunter’s nephew Captain William Kent was delayed at sea, so Major Joseph Foveaux came over from the Rum Corps. Foveaux got wealthy by pressing convicts into slave labour on his Sydney farm and he took sadistic ideas of discipline to Norfolk. Humiliation and agony were his tools of trade and he wasted no time establishing a regime of cruelty, which he kept secret from the mainland by censoring mail.
Foveaux was selective in his punishments, ruling with informers who got off lightly while some were routinely sentenced to 200 lashes as a mere “feeler”. Others were kept in tiny dark isolation cells in water pits for 48 hours unable to sleep or even crouch for fear of drowning. Women were treated as slaves and bought and sold freely. Doctors and clergymen on the island tried in vain to ease the punishments before a fellow major took exception at Foveaux punishing his soldiers without a proper court martial. Foveaux was sent to England but exonerated and came back to Norfolk with a promotion. New arrivals got 25 lashes to show authority and whenever a foreign ship was sighted, Irish prisoners were herded up into a timber building with orders for it to be set alight if the ship landed. It was ill-health that ended his horrible reign and he returned to England in 1804 as an asthmatic.
William Bligh was now governor in Sydney, but again the subject of mutiny this time by landholder John Macarthur. When Bligh attempted to stop the rum trade by arresting Macarthur, his officers sided with Macarthur and put Bligh under house arrest. Colonel William Paterson arrived in 1809 to relieve Bligh. By 1810 American whalers had told the world of Christian’s mutineers on Pitcairn while life was generally quieter on Norfolk. The last convicts were removed in 1814 and the island was turned loose to 12 fierce dogs.
That year Samuel Marsden arrived from the London Missionary Society to convert the people of the south Pacific, with New Zealand as his base. In 1824 Norfolk was re-established as an outpost of the “ne plus ultra of Convict degradation”. New governor Ralph Darling enthusiastically ordered the withdrawal of all women to make the island a place of “extreme punishment short of death”. In 1826 a revolt held out for several weeks before its leaders were caught and hanged in Sydney. Another martinet James Morriset arrived in 1829 and he got round the official limit of 300 lashes by imposing the sentence multiple times. Morriset had uncontrollable rages towards his prisoners with a total lack of interest in running the settlement.
In Pitcairn a new arrival named John Buffett took over teaching and eventually controlled the island before falling foul of alcohol. Another charlatan missionary Lord Joshua Hill arrived claiming to be sent by the British. He denounced the older settlers and appointed a cadre of sub-rulers to enforce his own rule until he too was violently deposed. The islanders were anxious to become part of the British Empire and when Captain Russell Elliot arrived in 1838, he produced a “constitution” Britain would eventually recognise in 1887. The island was a regular stop of whalers but became an outpost of the Church of England under George Selwyn.
In Norfolk, there was temporary respite with the kind reign of Alexander M’Konochie. M’Konochie was convinced punishment was counter-productive and allowed prisoners to be treated humanely. They could earn freedom by labour and good conduct and the lashings stopped. However Governor Gipps would not extend this treatment to repeat offenders on the island, an injunction M’Konochie disobeyed. Once word got back to Sydney he was recalled and the brief reform era ended. The island continued as a gulag of terror until closed in 1855.
The empty island suddenly appeared as an attractive proposition for the Pitcairners outgrowing their tiny home. An 1855 poll found 153 out of 187 in favour of the move and they sailed west to Norfolk a year later under a founding document auspiced by Queen Victoria, though some returned after a short while. In 1863 there was another split and another 27 settlers returned to Pitcairn. Those that stayed fell under the power of Selwyn and his Melanesian high church mission. The mission farm became profitable and the island became a benevolent church dictatorship surviving on free labour or “field hands for the Lord”.
In 1897 Governor Hampden issued an order-in-council annexing Norfolk to any federal body which NSW might join. However Norfolk was not included in the new commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Numbers dwindled in the 20th century and by the 1930s the island was in crisis. An airstrip was built in the Second World War and a radar station, and the war proved a spur to development. By the 1960s tourism was on the rise but so were tensions with Australia over taxpayer funding. Norfolk made money by printing stamps but by 1975 a High Court decision ruled the island was irrevocably part of Australia and should be included in the electorate of Canberra. The Pitcairners lost their special status and a Norfolk Island Territory Assembly was given powers to raise revenues and taxes.
To this day, the tension between Pitcairners and non-Pitcairners remain about obligations to racial discrimination laws. The dysfunction of Norfolk government has been a running sore for Canberra, while Pitcairners emphasise their special status. In June Canberra took direct control of the island ending 36 years of direct rule much to local disgust and mass protest. Governance consultant Gary Russell, a member of the New Zealand UN Association, says he believes Australia cannot continue to act without consulting the founding document. “Even the Crown in England kept reminding the Australian state governments when they kept changing petitions,” he said. “’Have you consulted with the people of Norfolk Island before you instigate these changes?’ and of course this has not happened over the last 160 years.” Macklin’s Dark Paradise has not yet seen the light.