Dark Paradise: A short history of Norfolk Island

norfolkAs Dark Paradise author Robert Macklin says, all nations lie about their past. Whether it is Turkey lying about the Armenian genocide, Japanese ignoring war crimes, Americans glossing over their slave-owning Founding Fathers, or Israelis invoking ancient Hebrew lore to justify savage oppression of Palestinians, nations across the world turn history to their agenda. The British, says Macklin, are 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 their attempt to turn China into a nation of drug addicts.

The Australians have learned well from Britain and the predatory conquest of a continent has been hidden behind admiration 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. On his second voyage in 1774, a vain journey to find the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, 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.

After the upheaval of the American Revolution Britain turned its attentions to the south Pacific, not for sails but for jails. Within 18 days of the First Fleet arriving in Sydney in 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip dispatched Lt Philip Gidley King to establish a settlement on Norfolk with 15 convicts, five free men and two marines. They arrived at 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 – it was not discovered until 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 had a more immediate problem. 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 an informer.

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 row erupted over missing coconuts and Bligh punished Christian before inviting him to dinner. In a state of confusion Christian plotted with others to desert, a plan which evolved into mutiny. He led nine man armed with muskets, bursting into Bligh’s cabin and putting a knife to his throat. The following morning, 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, the mutineers 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 survived his ordeal and returned to Britain, acquitted at court-martial. King was also sent back to Britain while 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 came 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 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 effect was to rebalance the sexes and a relative peace broke out.

When King became governor of NSW, his island 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 cruel regime, which he kept secret from the mainland by censoring mail.

Foveaux was selective in 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 major took exception at Foveaux punishing his soldiers without 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. Ill-health 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 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 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 prisoners and a lack of interest in running the settlement.

On 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 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 eventually recognised 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 earned freedom by labour and good conduct and the lashings stopped. 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 was an attractive proposition for the Pitcairners outgrowing their tiny home. An 1855 poll found 153 out of 187 in favour of moving 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 and radar station were built in the Second World War and the war proved a spur to development. By the 1960s tourism was rising but so were tensions with Australia over taxpayer funding. Norfolk made money by printing stamps but a 1975 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.

The tension between Pitcairners and non-Pitcairners still remain about obligations to racial discrimination laws. Norfolk government dysfunction has been a running sore for Canberra, while Pitcairners emphasise their special status. In June Canberra took 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.”

The Dark Paradise has not yet seen the light.

5 thoughts on “Dark Paradise: A short history of Norfolk Island

  1. Where did the references to Tonga come from mixed in with Tahitians? Bligh did not go from Norfolk Island to Tonga. Bligh was never at Norfolk Island. Who wrote this?

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